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