Saturday, April 18, 2015

Harpsichordist Imbi Tarum (Estonia) performs a recital at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

“Then and Now” was the title given to a “Baroque Fridays” event on April 17th 2015,a series in which the Israel Museum hosts the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. At this event, however, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra hosted Estonian harpsichordist Imbi Tarum. Preceding the harpsichord recital, Dr. Shlomit Steinberg, curator of the Israel Museum’s European Art Department, gave a most enlightening talk on the personification of music in European art.

A prominent figure in Estonia’s musical life, Imbi Tarum, a graduate of the Heino Eller Music School and the Tallinn Conservatory, wrote her doctorate on the treatment of harpsichord in works of Estonian composers. An ensemble player, Dr. Tarum has also played solo recitals throughout Europe. Since 1991, she has been teaching harpsichord and basso continuo at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. Her recital at the Israel Museum focused on French music, but it included one work by a contemporary Estonian composer. Imbi Tarum was in Israel some 25 years ago as a member of the Hortus Musicus Ensemble. Her 2015 visit included holding master classes at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and this recital, in which she played on David Shemer’s Skowroneck harpsichord.

Tarum performed two suites by J-Ch. Chambonnières (c.1602-1672), this music being influential repertoire, in the light of the fact that Chambonnières is considered the father of the French harpsichord school; his writing was also influential on music outside of France. A court musician (the first to hold the position of “the King's harpsichordist) he was also an exceptional dancer, in 1535, dancing alongside the young King Louis XIV and Lully. Tarum’s performance of the Suite in a-minor, boldly set out and rich in ornamentation, melodic narrative and harmonic interest, brought out the composer’s brilliant style of harpsichord writing. Her reading of the three movements she played from the Suite in F-major displayed the poetry, charm and tenderness projected through the dance forms in Chambonnière’s works.

A renowned teacher, Chambonnières was known to have taught such musicians as d’Anglebert, one of the Gautiers and all three Couperin brothers. In fact, at one stage of his career (and in the thick of court politics) there was a plot to force Chambonnières to resign as court harpsichordist in favor of his pupil Louis Couperin (c.1626-1661). Couperin, however, out of loyalty and high regard for his teacher, refused the post, accepting the job as treble viol player in the court. Imbi Tarum’s playing of Louis Couperin’s Suite in F-major combined stylish courtly elegance with imagination and spontaneity, again with much ornamentation, then taking a step away from aristocratic elegance to perform the Branle de Basque – a dance lighter of heart and heavier of foot. For the last movement of the suite, “Tombeau de Mr. de Blancrocher”, Tarum enlisted the music’s gestures and raison d'etre to spell out the text of this curious piece. A musical tribute to the lutenist Charles Fleury, Sieur de Blancrocher, who died in 1652 after having fallen down the stairs, it is thought by some that the downward leaps in the bass might de descriptive of the accident, with the use of the highest descant register possibly representing the lutenist’s ascent to heaven!

Well suited to Imbi Tarum’s technical prowess and temperament were three pieces from J.N.P.Royer’s (c.1700-1766) “Premier Livre de Pièces pour Clavecin” (1746). Born in Turin, Royer moved to Paris in 1725, working for the court, eventually becoming director of the Royal Opera orchestra. With Tarum taking the lead from the fact that Royer had an Italian soul and that he had set pieces from his own operas and ballets (many of them lost) for harpsichord, we were presented with some dramatic and colorful performance. In “L’Allemande”, taken from “Le pouvoir de l’amour” (The Power of Love) a ballet-héroique, the artist brought out its theatrical aspects, its tendency to the unpredictable and its timbral interest. “La Sensible” (The Sensitive One), beautifully shaped and gracefully melodic, yet still surprising in its arpeggiated middle section, was lyrical and tender. This was followed by “La Marche des Scythes” (March of the Scythes) a transcription from Royer’s opera “Zaïde”, a feisty, virtuosic and clamorous rondo, strange and daring, so interestingly orchestrated and so wonderfully entertaining!

I would have liked to have heard Imbi Tarum perform more Estonian music; what we did hear, however, was Rein Rannap’s “Variations”, commissioned by Tarum in 2007. Born in Tallinn in 1953, Rannap is a virtuoso pianist who has performed many of his own piano works. But he is also a rock musician, a jazz musician and bandleader; he has written and performed arrangements of Estonian folk songs, written his own songs, composed songs for children and written film music and stage music. “Variations” is a mood piece, a journey starting out meditatively in the lute register. An evocative vista linked in tonality, the piece investigates many aspects and moods of harpsichord sound as it takes the listener into the world of timbres and of the mind, the piece finding its way back to the lute register sound, ending with minimal sound fibres.

Imbi Tarum is an artist with rare expressive and technical ability. She has the knack of drawing her audience into the essence of each work; in her hands, the instrument becomes a dynamic, powerful and highly orchestrated medium. This recital was a treat - one of this season’s highlights.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Concert in memory of conductor and composer Gary Bertini, marking the 10th anniversary of his passing

Maestro Gary Bertini
A concert in memory of Maestro Gary Bertini took place in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on April 7th 2015. An event of the Bertini Choral Fest (March 30th-April 24th 2015) it marked the 10th anniversary of Gary Bertini’s passing. Produced by Haggi Goren, the concert featured the Gary Bertini Israeli Chamber Choir (musical director/conductor: Ronen Borshevsky), the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir (musical director/conductor: Stanley Sperber), the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra (musical director/conductor Shalev Ad-El) and vocal soloists. The concert was made possible by support of the Bertini family, especially by the generosity of Mrs. Rose Bertini, and also with the help of the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Tel Aviv Municipality Department of Culture. The evening's proceedings were introduced by Danny Orstav and broadcast live on the Voice of Music IBA, Israeli radio.

Gary Bertini (1927-2005) was born in Bessarabia. The family immigrated to Palestine in 1946. Following studies at the Music Teachers’ College in Tel Aviv, Bertini continued his studies in Milan, Italy and then at the Paris Conservatoire. On returning to Israel, he established the Rinat Choir in 1955, becoming musical advisor to the Batsheva Dance Company and composing incidental music for productions of the Habima and Cameri Theaters. He founded the Israel Chamber Orchestra in 1965, remaining its conductor till 1975, was conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra from 1978 to 1986, assuming artistic direction of the New Israeli Opera from 1994 to his death. Gary Bertini also had a prestigious musical career in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is especially remembered for his dedication to promoting Israeli music.

The Rinat Choir was a unique ensemble and has been a major influence in the shaping of the culture of choral music in Israel. It was a central force in the performance of much new Israeli choral music written at the time. Starting out as the “Chamber Ensemble”, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra also introduced new and exciting orchestral ventures to players and audiences.

The Gary Bertini Israeli Choir was established in 2009 by Haggi Goren and Ronen Borshevsky and performs a wide range of repertoire with celebrated conductors and orchestras. The Gary Bertini Israeli Chamber Choir is the representative body of the choir. Conducted by Ronen Borshevsky, it also has a sizable a-cappella repertoire and has taken two European concert tours. The Bertini Chamber Choir opened the Jerusalem concert with three very different a-cappella pieces. With Gary Bertini’s own setting of the Catalonian folk melody “Song of the Birds”, memories of the Rinat Choir sound came flooding back to those of us who had heard Rinat and learned to know Israeli vocal music through its distinctive choral sound. Following a rewarding, well delineated performance of Salamone Rossi’s “I will praise thee for thou hast heard me” (Psalm 117), Borshevsky took his singers and the audience into the emotional roller-coaster of Claudio Monteverdi’s love-sick madrigals, with a brilliant and dramatic performance of “Di Ch’io vorrei morire” (Yes, I want to die) from the 4th Book of Madrigals; via its barrage of musical sighs, whispers and screams, the madrigal’s message is glued together with a daring amount of seconds. The Israel Netanya-Kibbutz Orchestra joined the choir in a performance of eight songs from Johannes Brahms’ “Liebeslieder” Waltzes opus 52 and one Lied from opus 65, in the composer’s own arrangement for small orchestra, rather than for two pianos. There was much to enjoy in the performance, with its happiness, longing and nature imagery set in light, dancelike vignettes so lush in their harmonies and nicely contrasted. The more intense, despondent and ambivalent texts, however, (possibly prompted by Brahms’ own anguish at Clara Schumann’s daughter’s engagement) made for movements of stronger profile and more heightened interest. Soprano Einat Aronstein contended well with the orchestra in some lively solo singing. One of the evening’s highlights was the performance of Marc Antoine Charpentier’s grand polyphonic motet “Te Deum” (c.1692) for five soloists, choir and instruments. Soloists were sopranos Einat Aronstein and Daniela Skorka, countertenor Alon Harari, tenor Eitan Drori and baritone Guy Pelc. Borshevsky’s direction of the work brought out its brilliance and dramatic impact, inspiring the artists to take on board Charpentier’s vivid soundscape. The orchestra offered energetic and energizing support, with zesty percussion and some fine wind playing, the full orchestral and choral forces finding a good contrast with smaller combinations for solo voices. Many of the solos were stylistically pleasing and the various soloists’ ensembles were well coordinated. The audience was justifiably enthused by the work’s mix of drama and devotion and by the ceremonial brilliance that infused the performance.

Following the intermission, we heard the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, conducted by Stanley Sperber (Maestro Sperber conducted the Rinat Choir for 17 years.) Founded in 1969, the choir, made up of Academy students, performs widely. It was the first Israeli choir to appear at the Dachau concentration camp and its recent concert tour to Hungary was highly successful. In the Jerusalem concert, the Academy Chamber Choir presented a group of mostly a-cappella pieces in the spirit of the repertoire Rinat had performed throughout the years. In keeping with the choir’s reputation, each item emerged as a detail-perfect, carefully polished musical jewel. The choir opened with three Jewish texts, from the meditative, filigree-fine singing of “Yihiyu leratzon” (Let it be Your will) from Earnest Bloch’s “Avodat Hakodesh” (Holy Worship), to the strategic mix of timbres Sperber uses for Yehezkel Braun’s setting of the ancient grace after meals “Tzur mishelo” (The Lord, whose food we have eaten) to the playful vocal “orchestration” of Oedoen Partos’s “Hamavdil” (sung at the conclusion of the Sabbath, with a reference to Elijah). Then to Anton Bruckner’s astounding, symphonic motet “Chistus factus ist”, its canvas one of wide dynamic contrasts, dramatic tension and personal, sacred expression, to then be soothed and comforted by Claude Debussy’s flowing, “Dieu, qui la fait bon” (God, but she is fair), glittering with the ideal of beauty and sung with a real sense of the French transparency of language and timbre. Articulacy and sophistication set the scene for the luxuriant, ecstatic intensity of Samuel Barber’s “Come with Me”. And, on a lighter note, George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 jazz standard “I Got Rhythm”, garnished with the singers’ vocal percussion effects, was tossed off with carefree precision, to be followed by Fats Waller and Harry Brooks’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (with piano). This part of the concert ended with fine blending and engaging solo moments in Tami Kleinhaus’ arrangement of Avraham Halfi and Yoni Rechter’s “Atur Mitzchekh” (Your forehead is gold black).

Concluding the concert, both choirs joined to perform three works with orchestra of which Gary Bertini was very fond. Sperber conducted the choir and Daniela Skorka in a velvety, lush reading of W.A.Mozart’s haunting “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord) from “Vesperae Solennes de Confessore”, Skorka’s singing addressing the work’s spirituality. Following the well-chiseled, unbridled joy of G.F.Händel’s festive “Hallelujah” Chorus, Sperber went to join the choral singers and Borshevsky returned to the conductor’s podium to conduct two movements from the Mozart “Requiem”. The uncompromising drama juxtaposed with sotto voce otherworldly moments (women’s voices) of the “Confutatis” (While the wicked are confounded), followed by a heartrending, gripping and intimate reading of the “Lacrimosa” (Oh that day of tears and weeping), the latter begun on the day Mozart died, made for a moving end to the concert which was, in Haggi Goren’s words, “a homage to Bertini’s enormous contribution to our culture and life and a testimony that Gary’s heritage is still so meaningful and alive”. Add to these sentiments the high standard of choral performance we heard throughout, dedicated direction on the part of both conductors and the five fine “homegrown” vocal soloists.

The evening was an impressive and fitting tribute to Gary Bertini.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra closes its 2014-2015 concert season with a birthday celebration for J.S.Bach

“A Baroque Offering” was the title for the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s birthday celebration for J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and the orchestra’s final concert for the 2014-2015 season. The Tel Aviv concert took place right on Bach’s birthday - March 21st - with the Jerusalem concert a slightly belated but nevertheless hearty celebration. Conducting the concerts from the harpsichord was the JBO’s founder and musical director Maestro David Shemer. Soloists were sopranos Adaya Peled and Yuval Oren and flautist Idit Shemer. This write attended the concert on March 25th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA, this concert being one of the events of the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival.

The event opened with one of Bach’s four surviving orchestral suites (the composer referred to them as “Ouvertures”) Orchestral Suite No.2 in b-minor BWV 1067, a work for strings, continuo and flute from around 1739. Indeed a dance suite in the French style, it, like its sister suites, opens with a long overture, followed by a set of stylized dance movements. However, with the flute figuring in a soloistic manner in this suite, Bach here merges elements of the solo concerto into the French suite. Here was a sympathetic and eloquent reading of the work, fresh and vital, abundant with French lightness and charm. David Shemer chose natural, unlabored tempi allowing for much satisfying interchange and making for lively and characteristic dance rhythms. Idit Shemer handled the virtuosic flute role with intuitive ease and beauty, interacting pleasingly with violinist Noam Schuss. The small ensemble gave the performance piquancy and intimacy.

We then heard Claudio Monteverdi’s motet for soprano (or tenor) and basso continuo “Laudate Dominum” (O, praise the Lord), here accompanied by harpsichord, ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) and theorbo (Eliav Lavie). Adaya Peled gave a spirited, at times dramatic performance of the arioso piece, handling the expressive, nuanced (somewhat instrumental in its demands) style admirably, enriching vocal lines with melismas and Monteverdi’s own ornaments. From Giovanni Paolo Cima’s “Concerti ecclesiastici” of 1610, we heard “Surge propera” (Arise, my love), scored for two sopranos “in ecco”, to a text from Song of Songs 2:13-14, again supported by a simple continuo bass. Adaya Peled, positioned at the front of the stage, was echoed by vocal student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Yuval Oren, a new face to JBO concerts, standing further back. Their presentation was effective.
‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
And come away.
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
In the crannies of the cliff,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
And your face is lovely.’
In Monteverdi’s antiphon “Pulchra es” (Thou art beautiful) also from “Song of Songs” from the “Vespers” published in 1610, Peled and Oren joined in a delightful performance of the duet, highlighting the emotional words with ornaments or dissonances.

Little is known about Dario Castello’s life. What is known is that he published two collections of sonatas and that he was probably a musician at San Marco in Venice when Monteverdi was maestro di cappella there; a chamber musician, he was leader of a wind ensemble. The JBO instrumentalists gave a varied reading of his Sonata no.12, bringing out its contrasts of tempi, with different combinations of instruments producing varied timbral effects in a text offering distinctively different roles for players.

Idit Shemer rejoined the other JBO players in the final work on the program, J.S.Bach’s secular Italian chamber cantata “Non sa che sia dolore” (He knows not what sorrow is). The text deals with parting, functioning as a valedictory ode, but there are various theories as to whom the text refers. The town Ansbach is mentioned in the text, possibly referring to Torelli working in the court there, and whom Bach knew, or perhaps it is, as David Shemer writes in his program notes, a “farewell song to a friend who leaves the town in order to serve in the army”. The work is constructed as two paired recitatives and arias, preceded by a substantial sinfonia. As to when it was composed, the use of a virtuoso flautist in three of the five movements suggests it might have been written around 1724-5, when Bach was composing challenging flute parts in some of his religious cantatas, due to having a virtuoso flautist at hand in Leipzig; and a fine concert piece for flute this is! Idit Shemer’s playing was carefully detailed throughout, being especially luxuriant in the first aria, a piece contradictory in its sadness at leaving but pleasure in a new life challenge, as she wove its rich, triplet-abundant flute melodies into and around the vocal line Adaya Peled, free and comfortable in this Baroque medium, addressed her audience, setting the narrative out boldly and articulately, in a pleasingly unmannered way, bringing the work to an end, as she contended ably with the word-painting and melismas of the final aria.

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra signed out of the 2014-2015 concert season with a flourish!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir opens the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival with works from Bach to Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
Opening the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival to a packed Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on March 22nd 2015 was “A Varied Sound – from Bach to Bernstein”, a choral evening performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. Now in its 14th year, the Jerusalem Arts Festival gives the stage to Jerusalem artists in the fields of music, dance, theatre and the plastic arts. The event began with words from Mr. Shemi Amsalem, director of the Department of Arts of the Jerusalem Municipality, and Mr. Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, who also opened the festival. Veteran radio announcer and narrator Hayuta Dvir emceed the event, introducing the choirs, artists and works performed.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir was established 28 years ago by Yehuda Fickler. Comprising five choirs today, it is the largest choral body in Israel, attracting amateur singers from all walks of life. Each choir prepares and performs its own repertoire, but, once a year, all the choirs join to work on joint repertoire to be performed at the annual festive concert. Joining the 150 Oratorio singers were the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Young Efroni Choir (musical director: Shelley Berlinsky). Conducting the Oratorio Choir and the Israel Chamber Orchestra were Naama Nazerathy-Gordon and Flora Vinokurov.

The concert opened with an impressive performance by the men of the choir singing the a-cappella piece “Vayimalet Cain” (Then Cain Fled) (text: Yaakov Shabtai) by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014). Articulately performed and well shaped, the singers presented the piece’s narrative in an engaging and vivid manner. Especially pleasing was the tenor soloist.

This was followed by some of the movements from J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata 140 “Wachet auf” (Awake, calls the voice to us) conducted by Naama Nazerathy-Gordon. One of Bach’s best-known cantatas, it was composed in 1731, when the composer was in Leipzig in the employ of the Lutheran Church. It is based on a hymn composed by Philipp Nicolai in 1599. The Oratorio Choir’s choral sound was rich and mellow, both well blended and finely balanced with the orchestra. In Chorale verse 2, the choral tenors amalgamated to sing as a well blended section, alternating with the exquisite ritornello theme. In the role of Christ (in the accompanied recitative) baritone Yair Polishook addressed each phrase with insight and meaning. This was followed by the duet between Christ and the bride (savior and soul), with Polishook and soprano Daniela Skorka in an uplifting performance, their roles seemingly independent both melodically and register-wise, the interlacing of the voices, however, enhanced by the extrovert joy of the oboe obbligato. Skorka’s fine technique takes her up into the upper register with ease and beauty.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was barely 20 years of age when he wrote the “Cantique de Jean Racine” opus 11, a short hymn setting of a medieval Ambrosian Latin hymn for mixed choir, translated from Latin into French by Racine. This was the first of Fauré’s several religious works and his first significant composition. The text of “O Light of Light” is an entreaty to God for his heavenly gaze, fiery mercy and guidance towards the path of righteousness. Presented here in John Rutter’s setting for keyboard, strings and harp, the harp added silvery fibres to the beauty of this piece. Singing by heart, the many small girls and one boy of the Young Efroni Choir joined the Oratorio choristers in silky, translucent, well-prepared singing; both choirs linked well to give a subtle, restrained and convincing performance of this small jewel, bringing out its sober, limpid harmonies. With Nazerathy-Gordon conducting the ICO and Shelley Berlinsky conducting the children, the Young Efroni Choir then gave a competent, pleasing performance of “Vois sur ton chemin” (Look to Your Path) (music: Bruno Coulais, lyrics: Christophe Barratier) from the 2004 film “Les Choristes” (The Choristers).

The program then moved to a very different genre and soundscape, to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s (1895-1968) “Gypsy Ballads” opus 152, conducted by- and to a setting by Flora Vinokurov for mixed choir, guitar, harp and ‘cello (the original being for choir and guitar). Soloists were Yair Polishook, Daniela Skorka and mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm. An Italian-born, Jewish composer today best remembered for his guitar- and film music, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was familiar with Spanish music, as is evident in his seven “Gypsy Ballads”. Not easy music for amateur singers to learn and handle, the Oratorio Choir gave a richly-colored performance of the madrigal-style songs, their spirit suggestive of the cante jondo style (a vocal style in Flamenco music. Garcia Lorca was devoted to keeping this tradition alive), with the instrumental ensemble coloring the songs with Spanish rhythms and vivid harmonies. Adding to the audience’s enjoyment of the songs, Flamenco dancer Michaela Haran took to the stage in some dazzling costumes and dancing that was fetching, tasteful and no less dazzling than the music!

The event concluded with a performance Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”. The work was commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1965. Calling for boy soprano (or countertenor), vocal quartet, choir and orchestra, a reduction made by the composer pared the ensemble down to organ, harp and percussion. Naama Nazerathy-Gordon and the Oratorio Choir performed it with piano, harp and percussion. The texts used are Psalms 108, 100, 23, 131 and 133, including choruses sung in Hebrew, “a suite of Psalms, or selected verses from Psalms” in the composer’s words. Bernstein’s original name for the work was “Psalms of Youth”, but he subsequently changed it for fear people might think it easy to perform. Previous to composing the “Chichester Psalms”, the composer had spent a year experimenting with 12-tone music, but decided the style was not a natural musical language for him. The “Chichester Psalms”, therefore, are rooted in B-flat major. Uniquely, they comprise the vocal part-writing of church music with Judaic liturgical tradition. In a performance that never lagged, we were presented with the work’s kaleidoscope of contemporary and modal music, with its unusual meters, its drama and vigor, its devilish, jazzy moments and its flowing cantabile sections. As to the lyrical setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) Bernstein wanted a boy soprano to sing it as it bears an association with King David, the shepherd-psalmist. With no tradition of cathedral boy soprano soloists in Israel, 12-year-old Yael Shapira was chosen for the part. Her vocal timbre is very close to that of a boy’s and she created the tranquil mood of the piece very nicely, backed by the evocative harp role. With soloists, the Young Efroni Choir and members of the Oratorio Choir, Nazerathy-Gordon created the large, varied and vivid canvas of the life-affirming work representing Bernstein’s hope for brotherhood and peace.

“From Bach to Bernstein” was a very varied and highly ambitious program for any choir, let alone an amateur choir. Kudos to all performers and conductors for a performance that displayed musical interest, dedication and much involvement.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pianist Amir Katz performs Bach and Chopin in Tel Aviv recital

Israeli pianist Amir Katz performed a solo recital at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv, on March 21st 2015. Born in Israel in 1973, Amir Katz lives in Berlin today, running a busy international performing schedule of solo recitals, chamber music and performance with orchestras. Since 2010, he has been accompanying Slovakian-born tenor Pavol Breslik. Their outstanding CD of Schubert’s “Schöne Müllerin” for the ORFEO label was recently released. In fact, Amir Katz’s recordings have won him great acclaim. In November 2014, he performed in the world premiere of a concerto by Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye with the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Munich.

Of late, Amir Katz has focused much on Romantic repertoire in both recitals and recordings. The Tel Aviv recital brought together works of J.S.Bach and Chopin. Strange bedfellows? Well, no, surprisingly not. Katz has managed to juxtapose works of the two composers in a masterful and relevant fashion. The concert opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s English Suite No.3 in g minor BWV 808. The six English Suites (unsuitably named English for reasons not clear till today) are his earliest keyboard suites, now thought to have been composed around 1715 during Bach’s employ at the Weimar court. Katz opened with a forthright reading of the Prelude, his approach to the hearty chordal writing of the smaller and larger “instrumental groups” of its concerto grosso-type form including much voice play. As to the dances that follow, Katz goes straight to the heart of the music, presenting the character of each dance together with the beauty and intimacy of the music, from the personal utterance of the Allemande, to the daring Sarabande with its florid, ornamented repeats, from the playful, unabashedly semplice Gavotte, to the energy Katz releases in his clear analysis and precise playing of the complex counterpoint of the Gigue Bach composed in the form of a three-part fugue. In his performance of English Suite No.3, Katz played off the elegance of French court dances with Bach’s German intellect. With some ornaments emerging a little heavy at times, his playing presented fine detail and articulate melodic lines.

This was followed by the artist’s performance of Frédéric Chopin’s 12 Etudes opus 10. Making for a smooth connection, could one perhaps surmise that Etude no.1 was inspired by Prelude no.1 of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in form, harmonically and in the arpeggiation woven throughout? We are reminded that Chopin’s Opus 10 marks the beginning of the modern school of piano playing, with each study clearly focusing on a specific technical aspect and addressing the new tonal potential of the piano. Amir Katz, however, sees the work’s technical originality and challenges as a means to presenting the intellectual and emotional dimensions of these superb pieces (the first work to display Chopin’s fully formed genius) and of highlighting the contrasts between them. Katz does this via a technique that is crystal clear and eloquent touch. His playing of Etude no.6, for example, offered a mysterious element, its richly chromatic middle voice subtle, its melodic lines legato and personal. I especially enjoyed Etude no.9 with its minor “narrative”, its drama and rapid modulations and fast changing dynamics, with the pianist divulging a second subdued melodic line hidden among the left hand arpeggios. Katz presents his audience with the composer’s score and intentions, staying well clear of the over-pedalled and ego-centred performances of Chopin so often heard in concert halls in the name of “Romantic music”.

Following the intermission, Amir Katz took the listener back to Bach, this time playing the Prelude in e-flat minor and its enharmonic partner, the Fugue in d-sharp minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The Prelude has a spontaneous, improvised character, Bach having written in the key of e-flat minor in only one other instance (Minuet no.2 of the E-flat major Harpsichord Suite), its minor orientation and slow harmonic development giving the piece a unique, floating, star-struck feel. Katz allowed each motif and gesture to dictate the manner of its presentation. He carried the mysterious ethos and perhaps Bach’s divine inspiration into the large d-sharp minor Fugue, showing the listener through the many expositions, augmentation and varied use of stretto with humility.

Chopin’s second set of Etudes – opus 25 – appeared in 1837, with a dedication to Countess Marie d’Agoult (Liszt’s mistress). Of these pieces, British pianist and Chopin and Liszt authority Robert Collet wrote that the Opus 25 Etudes are “the most universal of his works”, that they “transcend barriers of time and nationality…” Katz fashioned an almost seamless and totally acceptable transition from the Bach Fugue into the first Etude, the “Aeolian Harp”, of which Clara Schumann had said that it “embodied the playing of Chopin himself.” Light, clean and delicate, his playing spelled out the piece’s evocative melody above a maze of pastel filigree lines. Through his own insight and superb technique, Katz proceeded to bring to life the fusion of Chopin’s musical imagination and writing of opulence unparalleled in the composer’s oeuvre. He added a touch of humor to the fast repetitive rhythms and strong accents of Etude no.3 (F major) and whimsy to no.5’s melodies sweeping up and down the keyboard. And how very poetic Etude no.6 sounded, with its play of chromatics manipulated in 3rds! Katz took the audience through the meditative course of No.7 with its sumptuous left hand melody, his playing profound and meaningful. In the whole of the piano repertoire, there are few works as difficult (punishing!) in technical demands as in the outer sections of Etude no.10 (b minor), with its stormy, triplet-driven intensity, relieved only temporarily by its lyrical middle section, and how dramatically satisfying this was to the listener! Following it was “The Winter Wind” (no.11), a true storm scene, whether a descriptive or emotional storm, leading into Amir Katz’s inspiring and soul-searching recreating of the ebullient canvas of the final Etude - no.12 (c minor), the “Ocean” Etude, a piece that includes many elements of other Opus 25 etudes, and, of course, a 4-voiced contrapuntal line, its harmony and melody a reminder of Chopin’s love of and familiarity with Bach’s music. So had we come the full circle? It seems we had.

This was indeed a memorable evening.

Monday, March 23, 2015

PHOENIX Ensemble "In Search of the Chaconne"

Ensemble PHOENIX’s latest program “In Search of the Chaconne” presents many approaches to the chaconne and asks a number of questions about this early form. This writer attended the concert at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on March 17th 2015. PHOENIX is a broad, multi-faceted ensemble specializing in early music. PHOENIX's repertoire ranges from music from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and Baroque to early Romantic music, all played on period instruments. Herzog, however, does not limit herself when it comes to the presenting of a very broad repertoire, introducing audiences to works rarely performed and, in fact, to new music. Such was the case in this concert. Artists taking part in the program were Tali Goldberg and Cordelia Hagmann (Baroque violin), Miriam Manasherov (Baroque viola), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba).

There is reason to understand that the chaconne, originally a fiery, suggestive dance that appeared in Spain around 1600, may have originated in Mexico. Apparently danced with castanets by a couple or a woman alone, it spread to Italy, where it was considered as disreputable as it was in Spain! Viewed as obscene because of the indecent costumes worn to dance it or because of the vulgar body language it entailed, some people have even attributed the dance’s invention to the devil! In the 17th century, a more subdued, stately and slower version of the chaconne entered the French court, where it also appeared in the stage works of Lully. Usually in triple time, the music is characterized by variations over a recurring bass or harmonic pattern. As to the difference between the chaconne and passacaglia, some theorists have defined the chaconne as a set of variations over a harmonic progression, as opposed to the passacaglia variation form being written over a melodic bass pattern. However, one can find the reverse theory; so attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded.

The PHOENIX program opened with Passacaglia in g minor Op.22 by one of Italy’s first virtuoso violinists Biagio Marini (1587-1663). Indulging in the lush affects of this beguilingly tragic piece, the artists rode on the piece’s dissonances, with ornamenting that was personal and inspired by the moment. There were other “mainstream” chaconnes, too. Issued in by the ostinato subject played pizzicato on the viol, the two violinists took on the musical play, complexities and virtuosity of Tarquino Merula’s (c.1594-1665) Ciaccona with fine assuredness and clear interaction between them. The piece also offers the viol a lively, intricate solo. Then, to the poetic expressiveness of the Chaconne in D-major, taken from the first volume of Marain Marais’ “Pièces de Viole”. Herzog and Minkin’s performance of this was anchored on a delicate sense of balance, bringing out the flow of new ideas and highlighting its French elegance and understatement. Although a solo viol piece by Marin Marais (1656-1728) to whom German music theorist, organist and composer Johann G. Walther referred to as “an incomparable French violist da gamba, whose works are known in the whole of Europe”, one was also constantly reminded of the interest and sophistication of the harpsichord role. Written for dance at court or in the theatre, the chaconne of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) Pavan and Chacony (“Chacony” seems to be Purcell’s own term) in g-minor, an early work dating from around 1680, is based on a freely descending tetrachord. It was given its own authentic string expressiveness and “narrative” by the artists, who presented the composer’s mastery of writing variations which grow in power and magic as they proceed through a series of harmonic adventures. One of many chaconnes by G.F.Händel, we heard the chaconne from “Terpsichore”, the ballet-prologue the composer wrote in 1734 for his third version of “Il Pastor Fido”. Here was a chaconne to be danced, written for performance of the French dancer and choreographer Marie Sallé, who performed in this and other Händel operas from 1734-1736, when she was in London.
There were some Baroque composers, to name two, G.Frescobaldi and François Couperin, who enjoyed the play of ambiguity in composition, as they used genre characteristics in a tongue-in-cheek manner. A curious departure from the chaconne was heard In Couperin’s rondeau-chaconne “La Favorite”, written in duple time, rather than triple, yet linked to the dance form by its stately character and its cyclic form. Its recurring bass line is a chromatic scale with figurations. Bristling with interest, Marina Minkin’s reading of this ”Chaconne à deux temps” presented Couperin’s picturesque harpsichord expression, unfailing interest and variety, as she juxtaposed the color of registers and used creative ornamentation to intensify and, sometimes, to relax the music’s course. Minkin also performed a 20th century work inspired by the same form – Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “Passacaglia Ungherese”. One of only two harpsichord pieces Ligeti had written, it is based on eight intervals slowly spiraling downward through invertible counterpoint; the composer’s instructions were that it be performed on an instrument tuned to mean-tone temperament, producing eight completely pure intervals. The total effect has a curious otherworldly effect and makes for a beguiling mood piece, a dialogue in a non-tonal musical language with a few somewhat tonal progressions. Add to this some elegant melodies, growing rhythmic intricacy and intensifying, blatant fraught dissonances. Minkin, known for her performance of modern music, juggled the many elements of this piece with great skill and insight.

Another very different take on the dance form at hand was British composer Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) Chaconne from Suite No.1 in E-flat opus 28 (1909), written for wind band. (Holst was a trombonist). The Chaconne (first movement) is based on a 14-note melody that moves from instrument to instrument, with much weaving of varied lines in and through the ground. In this concert, the work was played on strings only, and period instruments at that! But the instrumentalists recreated the articulacy, atmosphere and sound world of early 20th century British music very successfully, reminding one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ description of Holst’s music as “uncompromisingly direct (it) reaches into the unknown but never loses touch with humanity”.

The event also included world premieres of two chaconnes, both composed for PHOENIX and for the program. Of his Chaconne, violinist, violist and composer Jonathan Keren wrote: “Treating a melody or a recurring bass have always fascinated me, so I was happy when Myrna Herzog asked me to write a chaconne for the PHOENIX Ensemble…The recurring bass I used in my work is a series of ten notes (a 12-tone row minus two notes.) This row makes writing in the early style difficult as it does not comprise a typical (chaconne) course, being almost atonal in character…” This being the case, the piece opened in a tonal manner. However, with the ground always obvious, it proceeded to touch the ear’s associations of both tonal- and atonal music as the individual lines became more complex and sometimes less so. So the listener finds himself straddling both tonal- and atonal sound worlds quite comfortably, without giving up on either. Jonathan Keren’s Chaconne is both accessible and rewarding to hear.

Moscow-born pianist, arranger and composer Uri Brener is an artist who performs and writes music of many styles and genres, from music for piano, chamber music, vocal-, choral- and symphonic music, electro-acoustic- and crossover music. “In Search of the Chaconne”, a vibrant, eclectic work, from which the concert took its name, reflected Brener’s use of a wide range of styles. His musical agenda included oriental touches, dance music, the bourdon, clusters and driving rhythms in what built up to relentless, full-on energy. This energy spent, we were presented with a tranquil, homophonic chorale-like section, the piece finally winding down to the minimal strand of pizzicato notes on the viol. Brener is a master orchestrator with much to say in the chamber music medium. Writing for specific artists meant including vigorous, challenging solos of strongly individual character – for violin, viola as well as some electrifying material for harpsichord.

Once again, PHOENIX has presented its listeners with a unique, thought-provoking program, taking the courtly Baroque chaconne as its point of reference and examining works inspired by it right up to today. There was a sense of in-depth enquiry, inventiveness, involvement as well as enormous vivacity in the playing of all five artists, inviting the listener to immerse himself fully in each item on the program.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Andrew Parrott and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in Stradella's "San Giovanni Battista"

Alessamdro Stradella
For its sixth subscription concert of the 2014-2015 season, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder/director David Shemer) chose to take its audiences into the complexities of the story and values of Alessandro Stradella’s (1639-1682) “San Giovanni Battista” (St. John the Baptist). Directing and conducting the work from the positif organ was the JBO’s honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK). Vocal soloists were Hadas Faran-Asia, Alon Harari, Yair Polishook, Shira Agmon and Antonio Orsini (Italy); those making up the chorus were Lucie Bloch, Shira Agmon, Antonio Orsini and Yoav Weiss. This writer attended the performance in the Mary Natheniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 9th, 2015.

While San Giovanni Battista is categorized as an oratorio, with its biblical theme and static staging of the soloists, it departs from the oratorio form in other ways: firstly, it is sung in Italian and not Latin and the course of its plot spirals in a way more characteristic of opera than of the oratorio. Here is a mixed-genre theatrical work, offering duets, 5-voiced madrigals and dialogue-arias. The librettist, a Sicilian priest Girardo Ansaldi, did away with having a narrator, his focus rather being on exchanges between Herod and John the Baptist. It is possible that Corelli might have been one of the violinists in the work’s first performance in 1657. A native of Rome, Alessandro Stradella’s reputation rested largely on his pioneering role in the development of the concerto grosso, but he composed operas and other stage works, oratorios and other church music, hundreds of cantatas and 27 instrumental works. His personal life, however, took a scandalous course, with an attempt to embezzle money from the church in 1669, affairs he engaged in with noble ladies, an unsuccessful attempt on his life, a later attempt finally doing the job, as he met his death by a hired assassin on the Piazza Bianchi in Genoa. Interestingly, considering Stradella’s personal reputation, when Pope Clement X declared 1675 as a Holy Year, Stradella was chosen to compose one of the 14 oratorios for the year. It goes without saying that such a composer’s taste for a plot would not be for the faint-hearted. Although some sources clain that Stradella’s music was never performed, at least two popular novels and three operas were composed around the story of his notorious life.

The biblical story Stradella uses takes some strange turns from the original. Text sheets in Italian and English were distributed to the audience, albeit bristling with typographical errors. The work opened with arias and recitatives, in which Giovanni (countertenor Alon Harari), addressing the audience in a relaxed manner, articulately took his leave from the “friendly woods…of tranquil peace”. Emerging pleasingly bright in timbre, the role at times seemed placed slightly too low for Harari. Opera tenor and ensemble singer Antonio Orsini, performing in Israel for the first time, is a true find. As the king’s counselor, he skillfully wound his lush, silky voice around the texts, bringing each gesture to life, also blending superbly with Hadas Faran-Asia and Yair Polishook. One just wanted to drink in each lush, mellifluous sound.
‘Let it never happen that such sweet servitude should disperse
Nor that the heart should turn elsewhere and my king no longer love.’

A new local face was mezzo soprano Shira Agmon, in the minor role of the Mother, a young singer of fresh, unmannered expression. And then there is the wily Salome. Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia presents her initially as cold and calculating. As the work progresses, she launches into more intense emotional expression, ever sweetly and winningly feminine, engaging in the florid singing of the role of the manipulative woman. As to baritone Yair Polishook’s performance, the role of Herod was just made for him: authoritative, powerful, imposing, wicked and revengeful, this fine baritone singer negotiated the whole large vocal range with alacrity, as he presented Herod’s rising ego, lust and weakness. Polishook and Faran-Asia’s final duet, with its conflicting agendas, all occurring together, is intelligent writing on Stradella’s part, the work ending with an unresolved chord.

Stradella had considered “San Giovanni Battista” his best work. It was the composer’s first work to be performed in the 20th century (with Maria Callas playing Salome). Musically the work offers new ideas, such as little contrast between recitatives and arias, with several recitatives accompanied by the orchestra, in addition to the concerto grosso effect, not to speak of the composer’s unconventional use of chromatics (representing happiness!) Maestro Andrew Parrott brought out the strange and wonderful musical elements of this work and the interesting partnering of text and music, leading the JBO players in fresh, vital and crisp performance. Here was a different, less familiar and wonderful work to appear on the local Baroque concert scene and how lively and rewarding an experience it was!