Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Organist Ralph Greis (Germany) performs Bach, Franck and Vierne at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

The Israel International Organ Festival closed its 2014-2015 season with a morning recital by Ralph Greis at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, on June 27th 2015. Fr. Ralph Greis, born 1972 in Germany, studied sacred music in Detmold, Germany, graduating in both church music and performance. In addition, he has studied Catholic theology in Paderborn (Germany) and at the Dormition Abbey. On receiving his diploma in 2001, he joined the monastic community of the Dormition Abbey, then taking responsibility for liturgical music at the Dormition Abbey as well as for concerts taking place in the basilica of the monastery. As music is an important part of liturgical life in Benedictine monasteries, Greis addresses much importance to the musical content of the liturgy, also believing in the spiritual content of all good music. The large organ of the Dormition Abbey, made to fit the exact measurements of the central gallery of the church, was built by the German firm of Oberlinger and inaugurated in 1980.

The recital opened with two works of J.S.Bach (1685-1750), beginning with the Prelude and Fugue in C-major BWV 547, written around 1725, either in Leipzig or Weimar. Greis displayed the bright, forthright and concentrated writing of the Prelude as well as its exploratory character. The 5-voiced Fugue, constructed from a very concise subject and no less concentrated in texture, is unusual in that the entry of the pedal comes in quite late in the piece. In one of Bach’s major variation works - Partite diverse sopra “O Gott, du frommer Gott” - written for manuals only, the chorale is presented with eight variations. A work of particular interest to an organist/theologist, each variation corresponds to the content of a stanza of the hymn; Greis also brought out the work’s contrapuntal and chromatic beauty, its decorative content and its variety of musical styles, offering registrational combinations to create strident, bright bell-like timbres, mellow moments and some of delicate fragility.

This was followed by “Prière” (Prayer) in C-sharp minor, opus 20 (1860) by César Franck (1822-1890). One of the “Six Pièces pour le Grand Orgue”, it was written in Franck’s religious period and is a personal, devotional meditation on grief, hope and faith, its pensive music eventually spiraling to an ecstatic, richly-textured climax. No small feat for the organist, “Prière” bristles with tenths, elevenths and cross-rhythms (César Franck had huge hands). Greis gave expression to the chorale-type melody forming the basis of this lush mood piece as it developed in a Romantic, symphonic manner, yet never losing sight of the work’s serious and ultra-legato essence.

The final work on the program was Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphony No.3 in F- sharp minor, opus 28. Schooled by both Franck and Widor, then becoming organist at Notre Dame, Paris, Vierne (1870-1937) brought the great French organ symphony to its zenith. His six organ symphonies, all in minor keys, were all written with the sound of the big, Romantic Cavaillé-Coll church organs of his day in mind. Influenced by his teachers and by Debussy, Vierne developed his own personal idiom, which was rich in Romantic harmony, complex in contrapuntal working and, indeed, symphonic in concept. In the opening Allegro maestoso of Symphony No.3, Greis’ forthright playing highlighted the movement’s imposing character and its complexities. In total contrast, the Cantilène’s melodiousness and dreamy poly-timbred toning took the listener into the languid mood of the senses. Greis gave the Intermezzo a touch of whimsy and elusiveness, to be followed by a leisurely-paced Adagio movement of great beauty, its introspective mood temporarily embellished by the church bells ringing outside…an interesting effect to remind the listener of where he was. The final movement, brilliant and fresh in style, intricate in footwork, brought the work to an impressive conclusion.

Fr. Ralph Greis ended his recital with a short, improvised piece, a token of his appreciation to the audience. Adding to the enjoyment of the concert was the fact that the artist at the organ was projected onto the front wall of the church. How often is it that one can watch the organist at work?

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Soloists perform Restoration music at the Israel Museum

Orpheus Britannicus, vol.1
On June 26th 2015, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Soloists closed the 2014-2015 BAROQUE FRIDAYS series: Early Music in the Mirror of its Era with “The British Orpheus”, a lecture and concert that took place in the auditorium of the Israel Museum. Dr. Alon Schab Haifa University) called his talk “Return of the King: Music in Restoration England (1660-1700).

Relating directly to the concert to follow, musicologist Dr. Schab pointed out to the audience that all three composers represented in the concert – Henry Purcell, Daniel Purcell and John Blow – lived and composed in Restoration England. The music of Henry Purcell, it should be noted, is one of the main focuses of Alon Schab’s research interests. Schab opened his talk by filling us in on some details of British history, notably the Restoration and the Stuart period, a time characterized by constant political-religious complications, with the Protestant Church threatened by the return of Catholicism. Interestingly for those of us who enjoy this English repertoire, it was Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI and I, and, it seems, a more colorful personage than her husband, who introduced the masque – an elaborate form of entertainment involving acting, music and dance - commissioning and performing them at court. Following the execution of Charles I (1649), the Puritans, allied to the military regime headed by Oliver Cromwell, banned theatre but not singing, hence the development of opera in England. “The Siege of Rhodes”, considered to have been the first English opera, premiered in London in 1556. Consort music was performed for intellectual entertainment in the early university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, but when referring to “English music” of the time, this generally meant music in London. London was actually two cities – London and Westminster, and there was contention between them. As to the kinds of music of the time, there was music played in pubs, in the street, in private homes, in churches, in theatres and at court. As to the hierarchy of performed music, pub music was improvised, some of it quite sophisticated, some less, but it was not written down. There were different standards of house music. Much has been written about it: it often consisted of sacred and meditational music with keyboard accompaniment, the singer and accompanist sometimes being the same person. Churches preserved music in their own archives, many of which, however, were destroyed or burnt. Theatres also had archives, not all surviving. The score of Purcell’s “Fairy Queen”, a “Restoration spectacular”, written three years before Purcell’s death, was lost for 200 years, to be rediscovered only at the beginning of the 20th century. Court music, being of great importance, often carried political messages; for example, Purcell’s “Blessed are they that fear the Lord” was commissioned by James II for the Chapel Royal to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy. The text, taken from Psalm 128, was chosen both because it refers to begetting children, but, heavy with political messages, it also alluded to the desire to continue the Stuart rule. Alon Schab concluded by saying that in order to understand this or any music, it is necessary to understand the political complexity of its time.

The concert itself featured alto Avital Dery, countertenor Alon Harari, recorder players Drora Bruck and Gil Wallach, with Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra founder and musical director Dr. David Shemer at the harpsichord. The songs on the program focused largely on the subject of music. In reference to “Orpheus Britannicus”, a collection of Henry Purcell’s songs published posthumously, Henry Playford wrote that Purcell was “blessed with a peculiar genius to express the energy of English words, whereby he moved the passions of all his auditors”. The program opened with two songs of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) that talked of nature’s musicians – the birds – the first being “Hark! How the songsters” (from his masque “Timon of Athens”), a joyful, warm and well blended opener to the concert, the presence of recorders so delicate and appealing in this repertoire. Avital Dery and David Shemer then performed the famous arioso said to have been sung by Purcell himself “’Tis Nature’s Voice” (from Hail Bright Cecilia); Dery engaged in much word-painting, in the many appoggiaturas and melismatic passages, changing with each new emotion and communicating with her audience. In Harari and Shemer’s performance of “I attempt from Love’s sickness” from Purcell’s semi-opera “The Indian Queen”, Harari’s lightness and transparency of sound allowed the piece’s irony and wit to emerge naturally, reflecting its message of the futility of trying to escape one’s desires. As to “Strike the Viol” from “Come Ye Sons of Art” (1694), written for alto, two treble recorders and through-bass, here performed by both singers and all three instrumentalists, what could be heartier and more uplifting than this perfectly crafted gem, with its melodious and dance-like sweep and the charm of its dainty recorder utterances!

As to the instrumental content of the program, we heard Trio Sonata in d minor for two recorders and basso continuo by Daniel Purcell (1664-1717). An organist and prolific composer, Henry Purcell’s younger brother has not enjoyed enough credit on the concert platform. A work of short movements, it was given a sympathetic and cantabile reading by the artists, its moods and dissonances addressed, their playing offering some tasteful embellishments. From “A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet” (1696), the first volume of English keyboard works by one composer, David Shemer performed Henry Purcell’s Harpsichord Suite in g minor, issuing it in with a fluid, imitative Prelude. Preserving the noble mood of the suite’s minor mode, Shemer’s playing was ornamented, highlighting its small dissonant surprises.

The program ended with “An Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell” (1696) by John Blow (1649-1708). There could have been no more fitting memorial to Henry Purcell than this fine setting of Dryden’s “Hark how the Lark and Linnet Sing” scored originally for two countertenors, two recorders and thoroughbass, this work being one of Blow’s greatest masterpieces and a major work of the Restoration. It is also Blow’s most Purcellian, with the choice of two countertenor roles as well as the use of recorders which evoke a funereal tone and a sense of the other-worldly. Purcell had been a student of Blow as a boy at the Chapel Royal and also later, then succeeding him as organist at Westminster Abbey. Both musicians benefited from the long association. Early death at that time was commonplace, but here Blow and Dryden are deploring the catastrophe of losing a friend and one of England’s greatest composers. Dryden’s poem begins by mentioning the singing of birds, but contends that their music is no challenge to Purcell. It ends with crediting heaven for Purcell’s music. The artists gave a satisfying performance of this major and challenging work, its course characterized by mournful and celebratory moments and colored with curious, unpredictable shifts of harmony.
‘The Heavenly Choir, who heard his notes from high
Let down the Scale of Musick from the sky:
They handed him along,
And all the way He taught, and all the way they sung.’

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Zvi Plesser and Jonathan Keren join the Carmel Quartet to discuss and perform Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night"

The Carmel Quartet concluded its 2014-2015 “Strings and More” series with “Transfiguration”, an explained concert on the subject of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, on June 23rd 2015.

Founded in 1999 in Jerusalem, the Carmel Quartet plays a wide range of repertoire, Israeli works included, performing throughout Israel, in Europe, the USA and further afield. The quartet made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. In 2013, the Carmel Quartet made its first tour of China, performing in the Forbidden City. For “Transfiguration”, quartet members violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman were joined by guest artists Zvi Plesser-‘cello and Jonathan Keren - viola for the performance of the Schoenberg work. “Strings and More”, with each concert/lecture presented three times in Hebrew and once in English, is directed by Dr. Yoel Greenberg.

The evening opened with a few moments of a recording of Schoenberg’s massive cantata “Gurre-Lieder”, its lush, lyrical, late-Romantic sounds reminding the listener of Schoenberg’s early compositional style. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) composed “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) Op. 4, a string sextet in one movement, in 1899. The tone poem takes its inspiration from- and is based on Richard Dehmel’s mystical poem of the same name. The poem describes a man and woman in love walking through the woods on a moonlit night. Ashamed, she reveals she is pregnant with another man’s child, a man she had never loved. The man walking with her responds with loving acceptance of her, accepting the child as his own. The unborn child, the woman and man and the night itself are transfigured from darkness into light. To introduce the audience to the still largely but not exclusively tonal early language of the composer who was to become the “bad boy” of modern atonal music, we were shown “Science and Charity”, the disturbingly realistic oil picture painted by the 15-year-old Picasso. Yet, according to musicologist Yoel Greenberg, despite its mostly conventional Romantic style, “Transfigured Night”, so well liked in today’s concert halls, met with quite some disapproval from the public when first performed. At that time, Schoenberg was already claiming that the triad was to be seen as an “effect”, despite the fact that “Transfigured Night” is bristling with triads in Brahmsian profusion. So why did critics and the concert-going public of Schoenberg’s time give the work a poor reception? People found it hard to accept the coupling of Dehmel’s text with the chamber medium, the most abstract musical setting of all, and there was much discussion as to whether the music reflected the text and whether it was a programmatic work or not. For Schoenberg, the concept was what was important; his argument was that different listeners had different demands on music. Despite his description of how each part of the work connected in parallel with the poem, he was, in fact, against having the poem itself printed with the music. His publisher, however, insisted on including it; Dehmel was, after all, a popular poet of the time. Greenberg talked of the leitmotifs threaded through the work, representing various elements of the poem: the slow march representing the two people walking through the forest, the moonlit night, that of the panicked woman and the man calming her, the unsettled music accompanying the woman’s confession of being pregnant from another man, that of her sense of loneliness, then the lullaby associated with the idea of pregnancy and the secure, optimistic message of transformation. These motifs appear up to the middle of the work, after which stage they receive more abstract treatment.

Yoel Greenberg spoke of the fact that that Schoenberg was an Expressionist composer, with the subjective, emotional aspect of his music ever at the forefront, also in the composer’s later, most avant-garde works. There was no mistaking this emphasis when Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” appeared on the screen. This was followed by two self-portraits by Schoenberg, whose paintings had been considered of a high enough quality to be exhibited alongside those of Kandinsky and Franz Marc, fellow members of the Blue Rider group. The second of Schoenberg’s self-portraits to be shown, that of 1910, a haunting reminder of that traumatic period of the composer’s life, is no less troubling than that of Munch. Also very interesting were Greenberg’s references to other art forms integrating the music and influenced by the mystical, psychological, erotic and fatalistic elements of the work: in literature, Israeli writer Nathan Shaham’s novel “The Rosendorf Quartet”; in cinema, Claude Chabrol’s “The Swindle”, Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Lumière and Company” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “New Wave” (1990.

A born storyteller, Greenberg has much interesting information up his sleeve, as he addresses his audience in an engaging, easygoing and humorous manner. Adding to this, the women members of the Carmel Quartet, all of whom have some theatrical training, presented the audience with some very charming vignettes – one in which two ladies of Schoenberg’s time read and discuss critiques of the work and one depicting Schoenberg in Hollywood, stubbornly making his own conditions and demands when offered the opportunity to write film music… this never eventuating. There was also a poignant and beguiling reading of a Hebrew translation of the Dehmel poem by all six musicians. Following the intermission, we were presented with a riveting, intense and subtle reading of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”, from its first dark and dejected utterances, through fraught, full-blown sonority, via the work’s longing, introspection and intimacy, up to the silvery filigree sounds depicting moonlight and its associations, sounds that were almost visual in their radiance and delicacy. Led securely by first violinist Rachel Ringelstein, here was a performance of fine collaboration, still allowing for plenty of individual expression.

This was violinist Lia Raikhlin’s farewell performance with the Carmel Quartet. Yonah Zur will take her place as of the 2015-2016 concert season.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Soloists of the Meitar Opera Studio perform Rossini at the 47th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Gioachino Rossini
Soloists of the Meitar Opera Studio of the Israeli Opera performed solos, duets and ensembles from Rossini operas  at a concert that took place in the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Ye’arim at the 47th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on May 23rd   2015. The Meitar Opera Studio is under the musical direction of David Sebba; at the concert, he provided piano accompaniments for the eight singers chosen to take part in this year’s Meitar Studio program. A stepping stone for young opera singers who have completed music academy degrees, the program offers extra music- and drama training and much practical experience to the singers in preparation of an opera career.


Occupying an unrivalled position in the Italian musical world of his time and enjoying success early in his career, Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) saw his operas first performed in Italy, then leading to success in Paris opera houses, with his 39th and final opera “William Tell”, staged in Paris in 1829. In his remaining 40 years, Rossini wrote no more operas (still writing some small piano pieces he referred to as “Sins of Old Age” and a few choral works); whether the cessation of opera output was due to grief over his mother’s death, depression or his love of cooking and lavish style of entertaining is unclear.


Sebba and the Meitar Studio singers presented a colorful selection of Rossini’s operas and some other examples of the composer’s choral music. They performed several numbers from one of the greatest masterpieces of opera buffa “The Barber of Seville”, opening with tenor Eitan Drori’s songful and expressive rendition of an aria sung by Lindoro (the disguised Count Almaviva) “Should you want to know my name”, then to mezzo-soprano Shahar Lavi’s “A voice a while back”, in which she uses the stage, her powerful creamy voice and agility to portray the coquettish Rosina. Picking up the humor of the situation, vivacious Tal Bergman as Berta brought the nuances of the text to life, using the resources of her large voice to tell of the “old man looking for a wife”. From Scene 2 of Act 1, we heard baritone Yair Polishook, a familiar face on the early music scene, in a witty and amusing performance as the scheming Figaro, expounding his cunning plan for Rosina (Shahar Lavi) to meet her lover. In a more serious vein, “Resta Immobile” (Stay motionless) from “William Tell”, the pivotal, sensitive moment William Tell sings to his son, Polishook brought out the piece’s strong emotions, these heightened by dynamic changes and the dramatic color of his lower register.


A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Mendelssohn Hochschule für Musik und Theater (Leipzig), mezzo-soprano Nitzan Yogev-Alon possesses musical and artistic know-how and some wonderful ebony timbres in the alto register, contending well with Rossini’s typically challenging mezzo-soprano demands, as she expressed both sorrow and courage in the cavatina “Cruda sorte” (Cruel destiny) sung by Isabella in “The Italian Girl in Algiers”.


As the famous Roman poetess Corinna in “Il viaggio a Reims” (The Journey to Rheims), Rossini’s last Italian opera, soprano Tali Ketzef’s musicality, agility, fine vocal control and ease made her delivery of the challenging “Al ombra amena” (In a pleasant shadow) rewarding in its textual shaping, its melting runs and embellishments.


Duets included “La Serenata”, from the composer’s collection of “Soirées Musicales”, small musical gems bristling with charm and gentle wit, from the repertoire performed in salon evenings held at Rossini’s Paris home. Eitan Drori and soprano Goni Knaani engaged in some fine teamwork to evoke the piece’s graceful and lyrical mood. Performing “Quis est homo” from the Rossini “Stabat Mater”, Tali Ketzef and Nitzan Yogev-Alon collaborated and blended sympathetically, addressing the musical text’s strange, chromatic twists.


As to Rossini’s dramma giocoso “La Cenerentola” (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant), a work the composer wrote in three weeks when only 25, we heard three numbers from the brilliantly quirky piece sung to David Sebba’s translation into Hebrew. From the moment Yair Polishook (the philosopher Alidoro) entered from the back of the church, disheveled and dragging his feet, all the plugs were pulled out for a good dose of hilarity. The stepsisters – Goni Knaani and Tal Bergman – fought out their jealousy to the amusement of the audience, baritone Anton Alexeev sang and played the role of Dandini, the prince’s valet, and Shahar Lavi was an impressive operatic Cinderella. An altered version of the Cinderella story we were read as children, Rossini’s sparkling and energy-packed score demands vocal agility and sets many demands for the young opera singer. Other ensemble pieces performed with pizzazz and richness were a quartet from “I Gondolieri” (Ketzef, Yogev-Alon, Drori, Polishook) and the finale from Act 1 of “The Barber of Seville”. 


Singer, conductor, composer of theatre music and arranger, Maestro David Sebba has translated more than ten operas into Hebrew; he also performs his own show “Mad about Opera”, a parody on the history of voice and opera, accompanied by pianist Irit Rub. David Sebba’s direction of this concert, his work with the students and his outstanding piano accompaniments were infused with vitality, inspiring his select group of singers to give of their all. Rossini was known to have said: “Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life, and they pass like bubbles of a bottle of champagne. Whoever lets them break without having enjoyed them is a complete fool.” The audience certainly enjoyed a good taste of Rossini’s music and personality at this festival concert.

Monday, May 25, 2015

"Maestro Vivaldi's Mandolin" - choral and instrumental music at the 47th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Taking place from May 22nd to 24th 2015, the 47th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival offered some
Antonio Vivaldi
different and unique events. One of them was “Maestro Vivaldi’s Mandolin”, a concert of Italian music, held on May 23rd at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Ye’arim, featuring the Shahar Choir, Shmuel Elbaz, Jacob Reuven, Roi Dayan (mandolin), Amit Tifenbrunn (viola da gamba), Ma’ayan Beider-Jacobson (double bass), Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord), Daniel Portnoy (tenor), Eliran Kadussi (countertenor) and Gila Brill, the Shahar Choir’s director, who conducted the concert.

The program opened with the Shahar Choir’s a-cappella performance of LPigarelli’s arrangement of alpinist Antonio “Toni” Ortelli’s (1904-2000) archetypal alpine song “La Montanara” (Song of the Mountains), somewhat of a stranger among the works of Monteverdi and Vivaldi to follow, but offering a well-anchored and forthright choral starter to the concert. Then, to Venice for the rest of the program with “Lauda Jerusalem” (Praise Jerusalem, Psalm 147), one of the major choruses from Claudio Monteverdi’s iconic “Vespers for the Virgin Mary”. Accompanied by organ and viol, Brill’s direction produced a gripping, high-energy performance, the interest of its individual lines emerging from within the dramatic framework.
The rest of the program consisted of works of Antonio Vivaldi, all the choral pieces sacred, opening with the joyful, responsorial setting of Psalm 113 (114, 115) “In exitu Israel” RV 604 for Easter of 1739, the mandolins (playing the violin roles) adding much variety to the homophonic choral style. A more varied and profound work, Vivaldi’s “Credo” in E-minor was given an outstanding performance. Accompanied by all six instrumentalists, it opened with vivid block chords; the “Et incarnatus” was performed in a meditative, devout manner, its musical text offering some dissonance, followed by the grieving “Crucifixus” sung to sparse, detached chords (the sharps written into the score for altered notes actually in the shape of crosses!), this section to be contrasted by the frenetic energy poured into “Et resurrexit”. The rarely performed and challenging oratorio “Dixit Dominus” RV 595, only rediscovered in the late 1960s in Prague, made a bold statement with its opening choral pointillism, accented by incisive rhythmic writing and word-painting, the performance colored with its mystery and tension and moments of lyricism. This superb setting of Psalm 110 offered the audience a fine opportunity to enjoy the Shahar Choir’s stable, vivid choral sound, its well-coordinated female section, its palette of timbres, some exciting music-making and two of its soloists. Performing two movements, tenor Daniel Portnoy (also heard in the opening work of the concert) expressed the text’s gestures in articulate, lively and unmannered singing. Young Eliran Kadussi, singing in the countertenor range for only three months, displayed a powerful voice and promise in the “Judicabit”, its melismatic passages a demanding task for any singer!

The concert included two Vivaldi instrumental works. Trio Sonata opus 1 no.2 in E-minor for two violins and basso continuo RV 67 is the second of the 12 composed in 1705. The violin parts were performed here on mandolin players Shmuel Elbaz and Jacob Reuven, the acoustic resonance of the Kiryat Ye’arim Church most favorable to the timbril combination of mandolins, organ, viola da gamba and double bass. Vivaldi’s trio sonata rang out in clear, transparent sounds, the opening Grave movement empathic, followed by Elbaz and Reuven in articulate interchange, enjoying the fiery concept of the Italian Corrente. This (enigmatically) was followed by a Giga, taken at a somewhat calmer pace, allowing for a vibrant and elegant playing. The sparkling viol solo (Amit Tiefenbrunn) in the final movement was yet another attractive aspect of the performance. Of the almost 600 concertos Vivaldi wrote, the Concerto in D-major RV 93 is one of four he composed in the 1730s with the lute in mind, these including the technical brilliance associated with lute players. Here, the soloist was Shmuel Elbaz, with Jacob Reuven and Roi Dayan taking on the violin roles. Certainly authentic in sound, Elbaz’ reading of the solo was expressive and singing, his playing of the central Largo movement free, pensive, delicate and tastefully ornamented, set against a pizzicato accompaniment. The final movement, dancelike, lively and varied, was no less rewarding.

Under the keenly attentive direction of Gila Brill, here was a concert of excellent choral singing and well-coordinated and supportive instrumental playing on the part of the basso continuo. As to the Israeli tradition of mandolin-playing, originating in Beer Sheva, we should hear more of its exponents in our concert halls.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Yuri Medianik (bayan, conductor), Olga Scheps (piano) and Avi Avital (mandolin) perform "La Tempesta dei Solisti" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Yuri Medianik
At a unique concert, held in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on May 19th 2015, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem hosted three soloists – conductor, violinist and bayan-player Yuri Medianik, pianist Olga Scheps and Israeli mandolin artist Avi Avital.

If this seems like an unconventional combination of artists and repertoire, it worked well when one considers the wide variety of musical taste each of the three artists displays. Yuri Medianik (b.1983, Ukraine), a graduate of the Tchaikovsky Moscow State University (violin) and the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music (bayan), also works closely with jazz musicians and with actors. His CD “A Recollection of Piazzolla” is among his most internationally acclaimed recordings. In a short film clip shown at the event, 29-year-old Moscow-born Olga Scheps, a soloist, recitalist and chamber musician today living in Germany, spoke of her love of vocal music and of lighter music genres. Born in Beer Sheva in 1978, Avi Avital, known for his exemplary performance of Baroque music - in particular of Vivaldi and Bach - performs music by such composers as Dvorak, Piazzolla, Bloch and Villa Lobos, as well as new works (of which has commissioned some 90), also engaging in klezmer- and much folk-oriented music from Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, Cuba, etc. Disturbed at playing so many works arranged for mandolin, one of his aims is to “redefine the mandolin and its repertoire”. Avi Avital presently resides in Berlin.

The program opened with Yuri Medianik performing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song”, arranged from Book 6 of the composer’s “Songs without Words” (piano) for bayan, a type of chromatic button accordion developed in Russia in the early 20th century. The artist’s playing of it was easeful and virtuosic, dynamic and bristling with vitality, its gossamer-featured details all present and sent to the audience with the wink of an eye. This was followed by the Bulgarian Suite (1975) for bayan by Russian bayan-player and composer Viacheslav Semionov (b.1946). Medianik gave shape, life and color to the folk-dance-based outer movements, to their inebriating rhythms and their innate melodiousness. His playing of the somewhat melancholy middle movement “Sevdana”, mostly lighter-textured in scoring than the outer movements, was touching, personal and expressive.

In preparation for the performance of two Bach concertos, string players and the harpsichordist of the Israeli Camerata Jerusalem took their places on stage. Yuri Medianik returned, this time as the conductor and a very fastidious, elegant and expressive conductor he is, too. He conducted Avi Avital and the orchestra in J.S.Bach’s Concerto for violin in A-minor BWV 1041, with Avital playing the solo violin part on mandolin, in a performance that had people in the audience sitting at the edges of their seats. With Avital involved in a recent recording of  Vivaldi works, here was a concerto on the traditional Italian three-movement model, in which we heard soloist and orchestra collaborating to achieve a fine sense of balance; Avital’s playing, whether highlighting a solo passage or integrating with the orchestra, was audible and meaningful at all times. The outer movements were loaded with young energy, their pizzazz and excitement gripping yet remaining noble, Avital’s playing never resorting to rough showmanship. His performance of the Andante movement was fragile and moving, the delicate flexing of its melodies and pianississimo moments, supported by Medianik, indicative of his winning, human musical language. In Bach’s Concerto for keyboard in G-minor BWV 1056, adapted for mandolin and orchestra by Avital himself, the mandolin artist’s exquisite understanding and faultless reading of the work left me not missing the harpsichord’s presence at all, with some nice spreads appearing, nevertheless reminding the listener of the work’s origins. The Largo’s meditative and finely chiseled filigree melodies found their way to the back of the Recanati Hall and into the listener’s heart, to then be swept aside by an exhilarating and hearty rendering of the final Presto. In fresh and sparkling playing, Bach’s musical language is at the forefront when in the hands of Avital and Medianik. A great virtuoso of our time, Avi Avital’s infectious sense of joy and music-making has his audience with him all the way.  For his encore, he chose a Bulgarian folk melody/dance, presented in performance that was peppered with spontaneity and vivacity in playing that was dynamic and high-powered.

Following a short intermission, the musical scene changed once again. The Camerata string players were joined by some of their fellow wind players for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 opus 23 in B-flat minor, a version arranged and reduced for small orchestra by Ilan Rechtman. Olga Scheps was piano soloist. Composed in 1874, the concerto was revised some four years later and then again in 1889. From the forthright opening chords, the work’s puissant hallmark, Scheps’ playing was gregarious, full-blooded and varied, utilizing a fine mix of her impressively competent and powerful technique and her taste for the delicate, the lyrical and the sensitive in music, her cadenza strategic, scintillating, rich and imaginative.  Medianik’s direction brought out the work’s drama and “narrative”; naturally enough, both he and Scheps gave expression to Russian elements present in the work.  Add to these some very pleasing wind-playing on the part of the Camerata instrumentalists. In the tender Andantino, sprinkled with delightful instrumental solos, Scheps attentively wove the piano role through and out of the orchestral fabric with eloquence and with superb agility, following it with the final “Allegro con fuoco” movement in playing that was of grandeur and depth. For her encore, Olga Scheps chose to play the third movement “Precipitato” of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata no.7 (one of his three War Sonatas), a veritable feat of driving, unrelenting, percussive dissonances reflecting the tensions of war, its frenetic course colored by the occasional jazzy element and finally establishing the more positive message of the B-flat major harmony.
Avi Avital  photo:Uwe Arens,Deutsche Grammophon


Olga Scheps photo: Felix Broede


Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Atar Trio and Eran Zur in a performance of S.Y.Agnon's "A Simple Story" at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem

The Atar Trio’s performance of “A Simple Story” is an event combining the reading of the S.Y. Agnon
 story of the same name and music for piano trio. This writer attended the performance at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem, May 14th 2015.  Taking part in the performance were composer and singer Eran Zur – narrator, Ofer Shelley – piano and musical arrangement, Tanya Beltser – violin and Haran Meltzer – guest ‘cellist of the Atar Trio. 
When, in 2009, founder and director of the Atar Trio Ofer Shelley expressed the idea of combining the reading of a literary work together with musical performance, an idea inspired by Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale”, actor Jonathan Cherchi suggested taking a work of S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970) and “A Simple Story” (1935) was chosen; texts from the novel were arranged for this setting by Michal Akerman and a year of rehearsals got under way. Eran Zur is the third narrator to take part in this work, those preceding him being Cherchi himself and Benny Hendel.

Agnon’s novel tells of a bitter-sweet romance taking place in Szybusz, a small town in Jewish Galicia at the beginning of the 20th century. With the writer’s ever ironic, allegorical touch, he names the main characters of the story Blume Nacht (flower of the night), Hirshl (little deer), Mina Ziemlich (almost, not quite) and Dr. Langsam (Dr. Slowly). And, as has been pointed out by literary critic and novelist Hillel Halkin, the town name Szybusz rings close to “shibush”, which in Hebrew means “muddle” or “error”. And so, reading from Michal Akerman’s selections from the novel, Eran Zur transports the audience into this domestic tale of the shtetl life of shopkeepers – of how Hirshl falls in love with Blume Nacht but is married off to Mina Ziemlich, his night foray to Blume’s house, his nervous breakdown, his recovery and joy at the birth of his and Mina’s second son.

In a conversation with Ofer Shelley, the pianist spoke of how natural it was to integrate music with this text, due to the innate musicality and poetic style of Agnon’s language. Add to this the finely musical and narrative sense of Eran Zur and you end up with the sensitive, hand-in-glove coaction that characterizes this performance, the collaboration also working well with the more improvisational pieces of music. Threaded throughout the event were excerpts of works by Shostakovich, Messiaen, J.S.Bach, Schubert, Dvořák, Ligeti,  Joseph Achron, Jan Freidlin (b.Russia 1944, today in Israel), Israeli composer Eran El-Bar (b.1967), Jewish American composer Paul Schoenfeld (b.1947) and a Klezmer-style wedding medley put together by Shelley himself. The works, scored for solo instruments, duets and trios and presented in sensitively shaped playing by the three outstanding and involved musicians, reflected each stage and mood of the plot, its tensions and joys as well as Agnon’s sensuous descriptions of love and attraction. How better to evoke the atmosphere of these people’s lives than with eastern European Jewish music and how better to depict Hirshl’s parents’ confusion at their son’s depression than with atonal music? And how poignant a picture Zur and the musicians “painted” of a street musician in the snow! Another effect, albeit more subtle, was achieved by changes in stage lighting.  One of the most powerful and confrontational strategies, however, was the total ceasing of music at points of highest tension, an effect taking the listener into the raw emotions of the story and of his own mind.

Ofer Shelley is interested in creating repertoire that is distinctive and exclusive to the Atar Trio. This does not exclude challenges of experimental ideas. One challenge for the artists has been how to strike a fine balance between two such powerful forces as verbal text and music, without detracting from the meaning of either. Interestingly, each performance of “A Simple Story” emerges as  different and new, the spontaneous pace of narration or that of the music offering flexibility and setting the scene for variety. The performance at Beit Avi Chai was entertaining and engaging, offering polished performance, a good story and much for the senses.

The evening’s program concluded with Eran Zur’s emotional singing of “Evening in Kislev”, a song to his own text (music: Yuval Mesner, arrangement: Ofer Shelley).

The next performance of "A Simple Story" will take place on June 19th at Beit Hayotzer, Tel Aviv.