Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Jerusalem Opera celebrates its tenth anniversary at the Jerusalem Theatre with a gala concert of opera gems

Rotem Braten (flute), soprano Tali Ketzef (Elad Zagman)


There was magic in the air in the Henry Crown auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on March 15th 2022 as people arrived to attend the gala evening celebrating the Jerusalem Opera's 10th anniversary.  Presenting opera choruses and arias were local and Israeli-trained opera singers with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Omer Arieli, the Jerusalem Opera's musical director. Master of ceremonies was Yair Haidu, who has done the honours since the opera's first gala evening in 2012; his father, Prof. Andre Hajdu, was one of the visionaries and initiators of the Jerusalem Opera. Welcoming the audience and thanking all the people and organizations for making the Jerusalem Opera a reality was Jerusalem deputy mayor Yosi Havilio. 


Opening the evening's musical program and marking the 180th anniversary of the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco", Omer Arieli led the JSO in a fresh, contrasted and exhilarating performance of the overture, one consisting of themes from the opera, including that of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, as well as the depiction of the Israelites' curse on Ismaele for his betrayal. Then, two arias from Verdi's "Il trovatore" - Leonora's Aria sung with delicacy, expressiveness and fine vocal control by soprano Mima Millo, followed by the Gypsy Aria, into which mezzo soprano Noa Hope infused strong, saucy gypsy presence, as she and Arieli brought its vibrant dance rhythms to the stage. In the Slander Aria from Rossini's "Barber of Seville", bass-baritone Vladimir Braun, one of Israel's major, long-established opera singers, addressed each word and syllable, articulately explaining the source and nature of slander with the wink of an eye, as the orchestra endorsed his every word. Then to baritone Oded Reich's exuberant performance of the Toreador Song from Bizet's "Carmen", an aria celebratory in character, in which the arrogant toreador Escamillo describes various situations in the bullring, the cheering of the crowds and the fame that comes with victory. The stringent vocal and theatrical challenges of the Mad Scene from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" were met admirably by soprano Tali Ketzef, wielding the coloratura as a vehicle of dramatic expression. Kudos to Rotem Braten for her sensitive, attentive rendering of the Mad Scene's flute obbligato, literally accompanying Lucia's descent through agony and delusion to death. On a happier note was Song to the Moon from "Russalka" (Dvořák), arguably one of the most beautiful arias ever written for the soprano voice, with Olga Senderskaya’s honeyed, mellow vocal colours and appealing stage presence rendering the aria a study in subtle shadings and deep feeling.


Then to the evening's opera choruses - from Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride", the Marfa’s Aria was sung delicately and with delightful shaping by soprano Yekaterina Chepeleva, this followed by a quartet (Braun, Chepeleva, Hope, Stas Davidov); Millo, Ketzef and Hope addressed the complex melodic weave and individuality of roles in a trio from "Der Rosenkavalier" (Richard Strauss); and, with much good cheer, all the singers joined to perform the Champagne Chorus from "Die Fledermaus" (Johann Strauss II). Returning to "Nabucco", the festive, sparkling event signed out with a more thoughtful item - the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, the performance of it dedicated to the Ukrainian refugees. Once again, as in the Jerusalem Opera's productions over the past ten years, Maestro Omer Arieli's in-depth, dedicated guidance and direction of singers and orchestra transported the audience into the joyful, gripping, turbulent and alluring world of opera.



Oded Reich,Vladimir Braun,Olga Senderskaya (Elad Zagman)

Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra is back with another Bach Festival. Hortus Musicus (Estonia) and director Andres Mustonen joined the JBO for "Schütz and his Contemporaries"

Hortus Musicus (Pnina Even Tal)


With the anniversary of J.S.Bach's birth on March 21st, the Bach Festival  is once again under way. Under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and directed by JBO founder and artistic director David Shemer, Bach Festival VI opened with a three-day Baroque workshop for young musicians, topped off by a concert performed by participants.


For "Schütz and his Contemporaries", held in the conference hall of the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 14th 2022, the JBO was joined by Hortus Musicus (Estonia) and its violinist/director Andres Mustonen, who conducted the concert. Hortus Musicus and Mustonen are no new faces to Israeli concert platforms, neither was this concert their first collaboration with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. Prof. Shemer opened the evening's proceedings by making chronological order for the festival: early Baroque repertoire will be performed before concerts of Bach's music.


In his 'Historical Description of the Noble Art of Singing and Playing' (1690), Wolfgang Caspar-Printz described the “three famous S’s” - court music director of Dresden Heinrich Schütz; Johann Hermann Schein, the choirmaster of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church and Samuel Scheidt, the music director from Halle – as “the three best composers in Germany at this time”. They were close friends, working and living in the same part of Germany. Indeed, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) has frequently been referred to as the greatest German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach. Following his early set of madrigals, almost all of the Saxon-born’s known works are vocal settings of sacred texts, with or without instruments (he  received most of his training in Venice from Giovanni Gabrieli); these works remain pivotal repertoire of Protestant church music. Schütz' unique achievement was introducing into German music the new style of the Italian monodists without creating an inferior hybrid style; his music remained individual and German in feeling. At the Jerusalem concert, we heard a number of his sacred motets, the vocal roles performed by members of Hortus Musicus. One highlight was tenor Anto Õnnis' singing of "Venite ad me", his performance of the multi-sectional piece rich in timbre and dynamics and devotional in mood. 


Johann Hermann Schein was born within a year of both Schütz and Scheidt.  Although less in the limelight than Schütz, Schein (employed at the Thomasschule in Leipzig) was one of the most illustrious predecessors of J. S. Bach. His importance as a composer lies in the use he made of Italian monody and concerted style in Lutheran church music. Although the majority of Schein's output was vocal music, he is probably best known for the "Banchetto Musicale" (1617) a collection of twenty instrumental "variation" suites, all bearing an identical format. One of these suites made for a vibrant opening work to the evening's program, with Hortus Musicus' fine band of early winds (also the JBO's Alma Mayer-Nir) and percussion joining the JBO strings and keyboard to colour the various sections with timbral variety and vigour. (The instrumentation for these suites is not specified in the score.) While some of Schein's sacred music uses the sophisticated techniques of the Italian madrigal, Schein's secular music (for which he wrote all the words) includes such genres as drinking songs of surprising simplicity and humour. With much zest and witty banter, the Hortus Musicus singers' performance of songs from the 1626 "Studenten-Schmaus" (Student Banquet) collection suggested a focus more on drink than on banquet cuisine!  In Samuel Scheidt's canzon on "O Nachbar Roland", one of six large-scale canzons from his "Ludi Musici" (1621) and based on a melody popular in England, the composer had specified the use of viols, trombones, bassoons and optional cornetts. An ideal piece for the Jerusalem concert's joint ensemble, it provided plenty of opportunities for creative ensemble playing, with a variety of timbres created by diverse instrumental combinations producing constant differentiation of articulation and dynamics and giving the performance a playful swing.


Another contemporary, organist/organ technician Paul Peuerl was a German who spent his career in the Austrian towns of Steyr and Horn. Most of his surviving music consists of instrumental suites, free fantasies and a small number of texted Lieder with serio-comic texts. Of the latter, we heard a hearty reading of "O Musica" (1613).

'O Music, you noble art,

Much praise is lavished upon you,

For you bring great pleasure and entertain us,

Renewing our sorrowful lives.

Wherever you go, there is great joy

with dancing, singing and skipping.

Sadness rarely dwells with you,

Our hearts are aflame with joy.

O music, you noble art!'


Probably the least familiar of the composers representing early German Baroque music on this program, Johannes Schultz, of whose life and work little is known, worked as an organist in Dannenberg, Lower Saxony. He engaged in the writing of the ensemble canzona, a genre less common in Germany than in Italy, of which we heard the joint ensemble in two of contrasting character. 


Michael Praetorius' compositions also show the influence of Italian composers, as well as that of his younger contemporary Heinrich Schütz. Concluding the concert was a suite from "Terpsichore", Praetorius' sole surviving secular work (and the bread-and-butter repertoire for many of us in our early music training.) If the collection of over 300 dances takes its name from the muse of dance, Mustonen and the instrumentalists certainly endorsed this heartily, with playing of much colour, inspiration and energy. It is assumed that the collection was primarily intended to be performed on violins, but here the addition of the "buzzies" (of which there are too few players in Israel) certainly added to the excitement and vitality of the performance, as Mustonen led the players with relish and a sense of abandonment. 


For Baroque music aficionados, here was a fine opportunity to hear a representative collection of early German Baroque works. An extra advantage was hearing them played in the Jerusalem YMCA's conference hall, a space offering the audience closer proximity with the artists and the music-making experience.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Ignacy Friedman Complete Songs - premiere recording of Lieder by this prominent Polish pianist-composer


Polish-Jewish musician Ignacy Friedman (1882-1948) is today best remembered as one of the greatest pianists of the Golden Age, in particular, for his performances of the works of Frédéric Chopin and as a prominent musical personality whose character infused everything he played. Born in Podgórze, the son of a theatre orchestra musician, he grew up being familiar with the styles of Polish-, Jewish- and Austrian music. Friedman left Kraków in 1900 to study composition at the Leipzig Conservatory with Hugo Riemann, then moving to Vienna for piano studies with Theodor Leschetizky. His Vienna debut in November 1904,in which he played three piano concertos, was the launching of a forty-year international touring- and recording career, during which he collaborated with such artists as Bronisław Huberman, Emanuel Feuermann, Erica Morini, Mischa Elman, Leopold Auer, Antal Dorati, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Willem Mengelberg, Arthur Nikisch and Eugène Ysaÿe. Till 1914, Friedman lived in Berlin; during World War I he lived in Copenhagen, after which he resided in Italy. In 1938, with the imminence of World War II, Friedman tried to secure a teaching position in America, but with no success. However, in 1940, due to cancellations of other artists, he landed a concert tour of Australia, where he then remained, furthering his performing-, teaching-, recording- and broadcasting career. His health began to fail in 1943 and he died in Sydney five years later.


In addition to editing the complete works of Chopin and a number of major works of Liszt, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, Friedman produced several transcriptions of various works. However, he also composed many short works, as well as a piano quintet and three string quartets. It is known that he occasionally included a composition of his own in concert performances.  "Ignacy Friedman Complete Songs", recorded in 2021 for the (Polish) Acte Préalable label, is the first disc to appear of the composer's songs for solo voice and piano. With the exception of three songs in German, set to lyrics of Otto Julius Bierbaum, Friedman chose texts of prominent Polish writers - Adam Mickiewicz, Maria Konopnicka and Adam Asnyk - being highly motivated to set poetry of members of the Young Poland movement - Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Lucjan Rydel and Tadeusz Miciński. Included in the liner notes are English translations of all the texts. Performing the 37 songs are two Polish-born artists - bass-baritone Szymon Choynacki and pianist Jakub Tchorzewski - and Turkish soprano Şen Acar. In her liner notes, Dr. hab. Jolanta Guzy-Pasiak notes that there is "reason to believe that, at the beginning of the 20th century, these songs enjoyed a degree of popularity"… and that "they were published by major publishers…" However, since Friedman's death in 1948, the songs were no longer performed in his homeland, as the Communist authorities had made it their business to obscure works of composers living outside of Poland. Only with the fall of the Iron Curtain have works of such composers resumed their place as an intrinsic part of Polish musical repertoire.


Ignacy Friedman's songs constitute a rich collection of Lieder, their subjects ranging from love, (some sensuous in description, others naive and pastoral, several telling of unrequited- or one-sided love), all cushioned in rich, imaginative nature descriptions. Many songs speak of loneliness and death and there is a smattering of more folk-like songs, bucolic and humorous in nature. The items included in each opus do not necessarily bear musical or textual connection, the words of each often taken from writings of different poets. Romantic in style and colour, largely tonal, their musical style influenced by that of the great Lied composers, Friedman's settings flow wonderfully, his sophisticated use of harmony adding vividness and meaning to the songs' superb melodiousness, as he intertwines and dovetails vocal lines and piano accompaniment with subtlety, invention and interest. Friedman's lush and inspiring writing for piano reflects back to his own greatness as a pianist. For those performing this repertoire, his formidable piano writing will be as alluring and engaging to the singer and audience as it will to the pianist. With each finely-chiselled song, the listener is transported into a mood, into an evocative scene, to the inner workings of the poet's mind via the composer's musical- and emotional language. Running through very many of the songs, there is a gnawing sense of dejection and melancholy, elements often present in Polish artistic expression.


In addition to their commitment of finding the scores to the songs, Szymon Choynacki, Jakub Tchorzewski and Şen Acar have recorded these gems with profound inquiry as to the content of each, with attention to colour, detail and masterful shaping, in music-making of sensitivity, emotional involvement and close teamwork, introducing today's listener to this significant body of songs, works belonging to the rich heritage of Polish music. In Dr. Guzy-Pasiak's words: "Not every forgotten composer is so lucky to have his music rediscovered after a long time by outstanding performers."



Ignacy Friedman (Courtesy