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, Roy 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 Roy 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 photo:musicforaccordion.com
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



S.Y.Agnon
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.

 
 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The 47th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival to take place May 2015 in the Judean Hills


Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Ye'arim 
The 47th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will open on May 22nd 2015. Existing in its present set-up since 1992, the festival, directed by Hanna Tzur, takes place twice a year – during the Succoth and Shavuot holidays. Concerts are held in the spacious Kiryat Ye’arim Church that graces the top of a hill and in the intimate crypt of the 12th century Benedictine Crusader Church, nestling in a peaceful, exotic garden. People from all over Israel attend the festival, taking time out from the bustle of everyday life to immerse themselves in good music, enjoy the views over the Judean Hills, to picnic and browse the craft stalls.

 This year’s Shavuot festival will take place May 22nd, 23rd and 24th, and will feature a good selection of Israeli artists in a wide variety of events. The festive opening event will be “Cherubini - Requiem, Mendelssohn - Psalm 115” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, June 22nd, 11:30) in which Maestro Ronen Borshevsky will conduct the Israel Kibbutz Choir and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. A rare treat at this concert will be Israeli composer Yoni Rechter’s “Adorned is Your Forehead” (lyrics: Avraham Khalfi) for choir oboe and piano (arr. Shaul Gilad). Soloists will be soprano Beata Lipska, tenor Boaz Ben-Sira and baritone Jacob Basch.

 People wishing to indulge in the joys, roller-coaster emotions and vivid colors of Latin music will be drawn to “Misa Criolla, Misa a Buenos Aires” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 22nd, 15:00) to hear works of Ramirez, Piazzolla, Palmeri and more, performed by the Kibbutz Artzi Choir, the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra and a Latino-America Ensemble, under the baton of  Yuval Benozer; and, later that day, “Ramirez, Villa Lobos, Gilberto Gil, Caymmi”, a rich variety of highlights from Brazil and Argentina, will be performed by soprano Daniela Skorka and guitarist Eyal Leber (the Crypt, May 22nd, 16:15).

 This Abu Gosh Festival also offers an event for opera lovers. They will be able to enjoy arias, duets and ensembles from a number of operas in “Rossini – The Barber of Seville, the Italian in Algiers” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 23rd, 15:00), performed by up-and-coming (and more veteran) singers from the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio, accompanied by pianist and musical director of the studio, David Sebba.

Those with a taste for American music are going to enjoy two special events: in “Homage to Joan Baez – Her Loved and Renowned Songs” (the Crypt, May 22nd, 14:00), soprano Revital Raviv with guitarist Eyal Leber and Shaul Gross (guitar, harmonica, mandolin) will bring back nostalgic memories to many of us with American, Scottish and Irish folk songs, songs of Bob Dylan, Don Dilworth and Dire Straits. From the finest of American musical theatre repertoire, soprano Sharon Dvorin, mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin and pianist Yoni Farhi will present numbers from ”Porgy and Bess”,  “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” , topped off with songs from Kurt Weill’s tragicomic evocation of decadence and vice in Germany of the late 1920s in his  “Threepenny Opera” and “Mahaggony” in the event titled “Gershwin, Bernstein, Hammerstein and Kurt Weill” (the Crypt, May 23rd, 16:15).

 The mandolin will hold a unique place at this Shavuot’s Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. In “Maestro Vivaldi’s Mandolin” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 23rd, 11:30) we will actually hear three mandolin artists – Shmuel Elbaz (soloist), Jacob Reuven and Roy Dayan. In a program of works by Vivaldi, Ortelli and Monteverdi, they will be joined by tenor Daniel Portnoy, countertenor Eliran Dadosi, Amit Tiefenbrunn (viola da gamba), Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord), Ma’ayan Beider-Jacobson (double bass) and the Shachar Choir under the direction of Gila Brill. Totally different concert fare will be the order of the day in “Shem Tov Levi – Singer, Composer, Musician” (the Crypt, May 23rd, 14:00), when Shem Tov Levi himself (b.1950), violinist Yael Barolsky, violist Yael Patish-Comforty and ‘cellist Shira Mani-Sror will present Levi’s songs alongside  music of J.S.Bach and Piazzolla in a curiously motley selection of works.

 In addition to the opening concert, sacred music, as always, will figure largely in this Shavuot’s Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. In addition to the much-loved “Fauré – Requiem for soloists, choir and orchestra” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 22nd, 18:00) the same concert will feature a lullaby by Veljo Tormis, pieces of Benjamin Britten, the “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Requiem”, Yehezkel Braun’s lush arrangement of Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” and some French chansons, with Anat Morahg conducting an instrumental ensemble and the Ma’ayan and Bat Kol Choirs; vocal soloists will be soprano Shira Patshornik, alto Noga Morahg and baritone Guy Pelc. Marina Ganshin will provide the poignant harp role so essential to the Fauré Requiem. “Händel – Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 24th, 11:30) will be accompanied by an impressive line-up of instrumentalists and feature soprano Yeela Avital, tenor Assaf Kacholi and flautist Noam Buchman, with the Upper Galilee Choir, conducted by Ron Zarhi. This will be followed by “Works by Bach, Mozart and Liszt – Mass, Cantata, Vespers” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 24th, 15:00) with soprano Shira Patshornik, organists Yizhar Karshon and Alexander Wolch, the Barrocade Ensemble and the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir conducted by Michael Shani.  Not to be missed is  the festival’s closing event, in which the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival’s musical director Hanna Tzur will be conducting the Ramat Gan Choir in “Rossini – Petite Messe Solenelle” (Kiryat Ye’arim Church, May 24th, 18:00), a convivial, colorful and somewhat enigmatic piece (declared by Napoleon III as “neither small, solemn, nor especially liturgical in spirit”). Soloists will be soprano Daniela Skorka, alto Sigal Haviv, tenor Eitan Drori and baritone Alexey Kanonikov. Performed here in the composer’s original chamber setting, this optimistic work is sure to emerge as more personal and elegant, lending itself to live performance and constituting a fine adieu to the upcoming Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Urban F.Walser and Alexander Koschel (Switzerland) perform music for corno da caccia and organ at the Redeemer Church (Jerusalem)

The corno da caccia

“Music from the Baroque Period for Corno da Caccia and Organ” was the subject of a concert at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 9th 2015.  The guest artists were organist Dr. Alexander Koschel and trumpeter Urban F. Walser, both from Switzerland. For this unique program, Mr. Walser played the corno da caccia. A transposing instrument, the corno da caccia, a valved horn of higher pitch than the orchestral French horn, was played from the Baroque right up to the beginning of the Romantic period. It was frequently played by trumpeters, due to its high register and without hand-stopping. In the late 20th century, horn literature of the 18th century was being rediscovered and, with it, the notion that the brighter-sounding instrument with its narrower bore was more in keeping with the character of Baroque and later repertoire. The virtuoso German trumpeter Ludwig Güttler, an expert on 18th century trumpet music, was largely responsible for the revival of the corno da caccia. All the works performed by Walser at the Redeemer Church were written originally for the corno da caccia, an instrument frequently often used by J.S.Bach.
 
The program opened with G.Ph.Telemann’s (1681-1767) Concerto in D-major, played boldly in a reading sparkling with freshness, the organ’s bell-like registrations and the horn sound forming a vibrant mix of timbres. Hearing the corno da caccia for the first time, I was surprised at how forthright and powerful a sound the instrument has, together with a certain amount of dynamic flexibility. Never belying the technical challenges of the instrument, its demands regarding breath control and intonation traps, Walser’s playing was easeful, ornamented and entertaining.
 
J.S.Bach’s small Fantasia in C-major BWV 573 appears as incomplete in the 1722 Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Alexander Koschel’s playing of the version completed by Arnold Strebel was majestic and jubilant, his solid choice of volume highlighting the piece’s joyfulness. This was followed by an Aria with 6 Variations, an anonymous piece from an organ manuscript in the St. Katherinenthal Monastery in Switzerland. Choosing a more veiled timbre for the subject, Koschel then colored the variations with varied timbres and some ornamentation, his playing retaining the piece’s directness.
 
Organist and court musician at the Court of Schwerin, Peter Joachim Fick (d.1743) was both a copyist and prolific composer. His Horn Concerto in E-flat major, found in the State Library of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, highlights the influence of the Italian school on his writing. Following this work, an imaginative transition played by Koschel led into German organist and composer Georg Böhm’s (1661-1730) chorale melody “Vater unser im Himmelreich” (Our Father in the kingdom of heaven). Böhm, who held the post of organist at St. John’s Church Lüneburg for most of his professional life, was an important figure in the development of music in the Lutheran church. Boehm’s works influenced J.S.Bach, his writing using the “stylus phantasticus” approach that involved playing as based on improvisation. Koschel allowed piece’s the solemn, reverent beauty and humility to speak for itself, enlisting the rewarding palette of colors of the Redeemer Church’s Karl Schuke organ for the task.
 
In a very different vein, Alexander Koschel then performed J.S.Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor BWV 565.  Whether an early work of the exuberant young Bach from his time in Arnstadt or the composition of some other composer, as has been suggested, (the manuscript no longer exists) Koschel gave expression to the work’s grandeur, drama and excitement, indeed, to its outright flamboyancy, and to the spontaneous freedom the toccata form offers, its style connected to the North German “stylus phantasticus” mentioned above. The sonorities he chose added to the imaginative character of the piece. Koschel’s seemingly effortless performance of the fugue was no less eventful, and his pacing strategic, as he presented its poly-layering in articulate fine “orchestration”.
 
The concert concluded with the Concerto in D-major by tenor and opera composer Carl Heinrich Graun (1703-1759), a leading exponent of the pre-Classical Berlin school and musical director to Frederick the Great. Sending the audience at the Redeemer Church back out into the spring sunshine with a fill of enjoyment and a unique musical experience, Graun's user-friendly Italianate galant style offered the artists another opportunity to present articulate, virtuosic and vibrant performance.
 
Urban J. Walser studied the trumpet with Roger Delmotte (Paris) and taught at the Basel Music Academy. His trumpet performances of J.S.Bach works have led to collaborations with many leading ensembles and conductors. He is a leader in the reintroduction of the corno da caccia. His recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2 on the instrument has won high acclaim. This was Mr. Waiser’s first performance in Israel.
 
Alexander Koschel studied in Germany, Russia and Austria, completing his PhD at the Arts University in Graz (Austria). Involved with the preservation of the heritage of German organ builder Friedrich Ladegast, Koschel is the author of comprehensive academic papers and a publisher of organ music. As a performer and musicologist, his main interest lies in the organ music of Central Germany. Both artists have been performing together since 2002. In addition to playing repertoire designated to the corno da caccia and organ, they are interested in performing works of little-known composers of the Renaissance and Baroque.
 
 
 
 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nine new works performed by Musica Nova at HaTeiva (Jaffa, Israel) in honor of Israeli composer Amnon Wolman's 60th birthday

Amnon Wolman
On April 29th 2015, artists of Ensemble Musica Nova presented “60 - a Tribute to Amnon Wolman”.The concert took place at the intimate HaTeiva Concert Hall in Old Jaffa. Putting together the program, Ensemble Musica Nova called on a number of composers - friends, colleagues and former students of Amnon Wolman - both from Israel and overseas, inviting them to write works for the event. The scoring of works required would be any combination to fit in with Musica Nova’s ensemble of two pianists, ‘cello, saxophone, percussion and electronics. Some composers submitted works for the complete ensemble, while others wrote for smaller combinations; there were also electronic works, works integrating video, electronic soundtracks and live performance. Some 50 works arrived from the USA, England, Germany, Singapore, Spain, Portugal, France and Israel, of which nine short pieces were selected for the event itself. All nine pieces, all of them composed in 2015, including one by Wolman himself, were premiered at the festive Jaffa concert to celebrate the composer’s 60th birthday.

Currently on the faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and artistic director of Ensemble Musica Nova (Tel Aviv), sound artist and composer Amnon Wolman focuses much interest and involvement on technology and on issues of time information, alongside questions regarding the creative process and those engaging in it. A highly respected teacher, Prof. Wolman has taught at Northwestern University, City University of New York-Brooklyn College and Tel Aviv University and has held master classes and summer courses in different locations. In 2012 he was guest professor of composition at Harvard University.

The evening opened with American composer David Grubbs’ (b.1967) conceptual-performative untitled work for Amnon Wolman: a quotation projected onto a screen in front of which the Musica Nova artists stood in silence. This was followed by Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin’s (b.1957) “Adiantum Capillus-Veneris” Etudes in fragility for voice and breath (1&2), performed by contralto Noa Frenkel – music consisting of delicately chiseled series of breathy effects, textures of tongue and lips, alternating with pitches sung in single syllables. Frenkel, a specialist in contemporary music performance, focused, communicative and convincing, drew the audience into the filigree-fine details of the two pieces.

“The Shirakawa Barrier” for four voices and electronics was Ido Govrin’s contribution to the program and his tribute to Amnon Wolman. Born in 1976 in Jerusalem, the sound artist, curator, composer and writer was director of Musica Nova from 2008 to 2012. As to the work’s title, Shirakawa, close to the Nasu Highland area (some 188 kilometers from Tokyo), once served as the entrance to the Tohoku region. Around the 5th century, a barrier was built to prevent potential attacks. The site has become a poetic landmark, to which many Japanese poets return, either physically or in their minds, becoming the inspiration for the “utamakura” i.e. a category of poetic words, many of which are place names or the names of features associated with them, creating an allusion and intertextuality between individual poems and within the tradition. In which case, the symbolic site of the Shirakawa Barrier does not distinguish between history and poetry. Govrin’s intimate, evocative work took the audience into the theme of journeys, with different texts (in Hebrew) spoken softly but articulately, singly, in pairs and sometimes simultaneously by all four artists on stage. The work was backed by a tape of musical fragments recorded for and by members of Musica Nova. This connotative work is highly effective, indeed beguiling, demanding choices and active listening on the part of the audience. I felt that one hearing was not sufficient in order to grasp enough of the spoken texts.

A highly engaging listening experience was provided by “Attachment Unavailable” for live and pre-recorded tenor saxophone, a tribute by Neil Leonard (b.1959) to a “friend, mentor and collaborator”, as he refers to Prof. Wolman, speaking of the “immense impact that knowing Amnon has had on many of us.” An American composer, saxophonist, interdisciplinary artist  and artistic director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, Berklee College of Music (Boston), Leonard’s work ranges from solo concerts for saxophone/live electronics, to works for orchestra, audio/video installation and sound for dance, theatre and performance. I had the pleasure of being in touch with Prof. Leonard and discussing the piece with him. As to the prerecorded material, he himself recorded it mostly in public spaces, playing lines that would resonate in those atriums and corridors, with the intention of later multi-tracking or layering fragments from it. In live improvisation, saxophonist Tom Soloveitchik used the prerecorded material as a basis on which to add new sound combinations, to partner, react and interact freely with it, to emote and express within the possibilities and language of the instrument. What emerged was an intense, dynamic, piece of vibrant timbres and one asking to sound differently with each new performance.

In the program notes, Oded Assaf (b.1947) speaks of his autobiographic piano miniatures “Postscriptum: 2 References” as forming a continuum, a kind of later, condensed appendix to his previous work “Pockets”, the word “References” here shedding light on “works, composers, materials and principles forming my [compositional] basis”, in the composer’s words. Performing the two mood pierces, pianist/improviser and composer Assaf Shatil (b.1976) took time to spell out the meditative content of both pieces: the first - chordal, tonality-based and punctuated with many rests, the second, an eerie, ruminating and less tonal piece.

Guitarist and composer Reuven Seroussi (b. 1959, Uruguay) felt he could take up the challenge to write a work for the 60th birthday event only after he had found a text to inspire him and one fitting to be a homage to Amnon Wolman and Wolman’s own particular poetic style. Seroussi chose the opening and closing lines of a poem written in 1912 by Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958), a text powerful in its connections between the final and the everlasting. “Evening”, as referred to in the poem, constitutes an experience of the senses, enlisting an atmosphere of acceptance, insight and wonder. Prior to the performance, the composer read out a Hebrew translation of the poem. The work was presented by ‘cellist Dan Weinstein, a musician focusing much on contemporary and experimental music, and contralto Noa Frenkel. A compelling performance, Frenkel made use of a gamut of different vocal textures, the score calling for much leaping between high and low registers, for speech, the breathing of words and a play of syllables. With the ‘cello part no less intensive, Weinstein’s playing balanced, reflected and supported the vocal role.

Tel Aviv-born composer and sound artist Kiki Keren Huss, today working largely in the electro-acoustic medium, called the work she had written for the event “Birthday Soup”. In a spirit of whimsy, the composer explained her “small musical theatrical piece for pianist and humming” thus: “not exactly soup, but for a birthday. One pianist, a few piano sounds and a little humming”. The pianist was German-born Shira Legmann, who paced the minimalist, intimate work leisurely, pausing between phrases. The delicate, fragile piece is based on the motif of a rising second, with Legmann’s pastel vocal sounds contributing to add a harmonic dimension. Following a nostalgic little waltz and the reminder of the rising second, the work concluded with a quotation from a children’s nursery rhyme: “Flying man flying man, up in the sky. Where are you going to?”

Amnon Wolman referred to his work “To Nova” for alto, narrator, saxophone, ‘cello, piano and two keyboards as a work of gratitude, to celebrate Musica Nova and show his appreciation to various ensembles which have constituted “Musica Nova”, together with whom new ideas were tried and with whom he aspired to present music not represented on the Israeli music scene. Wolman’s objective in this work was to suggest various kinds of musical partnerships taking place over tens of years, “but through my own personal glasses...My encounter with Musica Nova has been an abundant gift. This work aims to celebrate this.” Indeed, this piece included the whole Musica Nova team in a collage of poignant delicacy. Bean boxes (evocative rain stick effects), and the sound of falling pebbles, forming the percussive element of a series of tranquil sound screens, complemented small solo fragments. Selecting from her distinctive and rich vocal palette, Noa Frenkel made use of some of her characteristically earthy low notes, also offering a few moments of suggestive nightclub chanteuse. Of the three short texts woven through the work and read by Avigail Arnheim, the first two were written by Wolman himself “in the language and place of performance”: “Imagine a beautiful melody played on an oboe; it gets closer, then moves away and disappears slowly to…” and “and a call of a crow, which is repeated again and again and again.” The third text was from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end, and stop”. Amnon Wolman is known for his long-standing interest in the creative process, the relationship between performer and artist and for his belief that music is an art form expressing many dissimilar ideas of beauty. This small work, taking the listener into a world of grace, naivety and fantasy, represented those values.

The event concluded with ‘cellist, composer and interdisciplinary artist Anton Lukoszevieze’s (UK) “Mapping Amnon” for video playback and piano. The film loop used was a tiny fragment of an old home movie, showing an Israeli beach scene and accompanied by recorded ‘cello sounds. Also heard was a recording of American poet John Wieners (1934-2002) reading his “Poem for Painters” (1958).
‘Drawing the face and its torture.
That is why no one dares tackle it.
Held as they are in the hands
of forces they cannot understand.
The despair is on my face and shall show
in the fine lines of any man…’

Here is a mood piece, the broader canvas powerful with the poet’s mesmeric, melancholic reading, his strong images commented upon by the piano part – integrated, jazzy and American – at the hands of Assaf Shatil. So where does the “mapping” come in? Lukoszevieve explains that the simple 4-note repetitions on the soundtrack are a “musical rendition of me saying the 4 syllables of Amnon’s name” and that Wieners’ voice together with the rippling film tableaux “made me feel I was ‘mapping’ Amnon and his travels through life in my mind’s eye.” The work’s various elements seemed to invite the listener to join its course, that of a piece both moving and thought-provoking.

Since its establishment in 1986, Ensemble Musica Nova, a Tel Aviv-based collective, has played a central role in the field of experimental music and in presenting new works of Israeli and overseas composers, having premiered over 180 Israeli compositions to date, and collaborating with renowned composers and artists. In its broad approach, Musica Nova often bridges the gap between concert hall music and that of other disciplines, such as dance, video art and theater. Currently the ensemble in residence of the Musrara School of the Arts, Musica Nova’s artists, work and performances set a high standard in the field of contemporary music in Israel.









 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Michael Tsalka's 2014 recording of Viktor Ullmann's seven Piano Sonatas

Viktor Ullmann
Born in Silesia, Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) grew up in Vienna, where he received his education. He took part in Schoenberg’s advanced courses and became one of Alexander Zemlinsky’s conducting assistants at the New German Theatre in Prague in the 1920s, becoming first Kapellmeister at the municipal theatre in Aussig (1927-1928). A member of the Schoenberg circle, he was also a devotee of Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophical movement.

Unable to find work in London or South Africa, Ullmann was in Prague after the German invasion of March 1939. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 where fortunately he was asked to work as a critic and concert organizer in the “model” concentration camp – a sly Nazi propaganda showcase project - assisting in performances and lecturing on various topics, a place where, in his own words, “anything connected with the muses is in utter contrast to the surroundings”. His compositional output there was large – three piano sonatas, a string quartet, Lieder, orchestral works, an opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” and arrangements of Yiddish and Hebrew songs. In addition to his concert reviews there, he also wrote extensively in words – essays, an opera libretto and “The Strange Passenger”, poems and aphorisms in which he discloses his misery, ambivalence regarding his Jewish identity and his cynicism. Ullmann was deported in one of the last transports to Auschwitz in October 1944, where he perished.

After 1945, Viktor Ullmann’s works sank into oblivion, to be rediscovered in the 1990s. Of late, there has been renewed interest in his seven sonatas. Israeli-Dutch keyboard performer Michael Tsalka recorded all seven of Viktor Ullmann’s piano sonatas in 2014 for the Paladino Music label. They are played on a 1912 Steinway, now in the historical instrument collection of the Nydahl Collection, Stockholm, Sweden; it is an instrument “which, by virtue of its individualized registers and distinct timbers, served well to bring back to life the sonic imaginarium of Ullmann’s piano sonatas” in Tsalka’s words. Dr. Tsalka and painter Corinne Duchesne were both artists-in-residence at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota at the time he was learning the sonatas. The painting displayed on the back of the liner note booklet was done by Duchesne as she listened to Tsalka rehearsing the sonatas.

Ullmann’s seven piano sonatas, composed between 1936 and 1944, trace the composer’s stylistic thinking and development, displaying the influence of Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg and other composers; but what is also highly relevant to both performer and listener is the political and artistic climate in Europe during which they were composed and which they reflect. The first four sonatas were written when Ullmann was still in Prague. From the very first notes of his playing of Sonata No.1 opus 10, one senses how naturally Tsalka adapts Ullmann’s own modernistic language of 1936 to his own mindset in 2014. Melodic voices take on individual and conversational reality, the Andante funeral march (2nd movement of Sonata No.1), written in memory of Mahler, emerges as soul-searching and spontaneous. As in Sonata No.1, and, in fact, in all seven sonatas, the composer grapples with the issues of the pull of tonality and what lies beyond it in Sonata No.2 opus 19 (1939). Following Ullmann’s use of a Czech folksong in the 2nd movement, Tsalka takes the final Prestissimo-marked movement leisurely enough to highlight its fine detail and underlying pessimistic searching, as it plumbs the depths of the mind. In Piano Sonata No.3 opus 26b (1940), the pianist presents more demonic elements, the 2nd movement - Scherzo Allegro violente (prestissimo), unsmiling and cynical, offers few comforting moments. As to the enigmatic 3rd movement – Variations on a Theme of Mozart – Tsalka states the naïve melody with simple, positive eloquence, presenting the gamut of styles of its intriguing transformations as the composer pushes the boundaries of tonality, leaving it and returning to it. Ullmann dedicated Sonata No.4 opus 38 (1949) to pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who had premiered his Sonata No.2 in 1940. Herz-Sommer (1903-2014) survived Theresienstadt. Tsalka presents and contrasts the alternating moods of Sonata No.4’s opening Allegro vivace movement – the despondent, downcast opening mood set against a more Romantic mood, wistful rather than brooding, concluding the movement with a pastel-hued major gesture. The middle movement – a contemplative fugue, as interesting and delicate as it is joyless, is played with eloquence. Tsalka’s articulate and clean playing shows the listener with sensitivity through the complexities of the 3rd movement, a fugal tour-de-force, addressing and highlighting its somber shapes and nuances, ending with a major chord.

The last three sonatas were composed in Theresienstadt. There Ullmann wrote: “In my work in Theresienstadt I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited…” proof of his belief in the supreme value and strength of artistic creativity. Sonata No.5 opus 45 (1943) “Von meiner Jugend” (From my Youth) was dedicated to the memory of Ullmann’s wife Elisabeth, who had just died in the camp. Tsalka’s reading of it brings to life each witty, playful gesture of the positive C-major/atonal first movement, punctuated by its sentimental tonal episodes and lavished with a sense of wellbeing. The composer’s bleak situation colors the following Andante with ghostly musings, Tsalka’s small pauses on introducing new phrases giving the piece a sense of searching. Following energetic playing of the cynical, miniature, densely compiled Toccatina, Tsalka takes us into the Serenade and the composer’s memories of youth with a nostalgic Slavic folk melody; this is colored with sad, tender and occasionally dark moments. More sinister and mercurial is the fugal Finale. The pianist’s playing of the first movement of Piano Sonata No.6 opus 49a (1943) takes the listener from elements of jazz, through lyricism, then intensity, finally settling in into an introverted, almost vulnerable mood. Following Ullmann’s inspired theme and variations (2nd movement) the work forges on to two movements of huge technical demands. Sonata No.7 (1944), dedicated to three of his children (a fourth child died in Theresienstadt) and bearing no opus number, was the last of Ullmann’s works written before he was transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Yet the opening Allegro movement, reflecting the late German Romantic style, is exhilarating and life-affirming. Tsalka’s playing supports its energy, stability and the affirming message of the major tonality. With the ominous message of the Alla marcia (2nd movement), however, most of this optimism is replaced by a sense of fatalism, of isolation and inner despair, also expressed in the atonal language of the following Adagio and of a Scherzo deprived of joy and peace, save for a quote from a musical – a flash of happy past memories. In the final movement, rich in the elements threaded through Ullmann’s musical, emotional and intellectual life (references to Bach, to Christianity versus Judaism, folk music, theme and variation form, counterpoint, the fugue, tonal versus atonal writing) Michael Tsalka opens with the tender, lush playing of a Yiddish tune. The work concludes on a triumphant chord.

Michael Tsalka has made an in-depth study of Ullmann’s music and life. His recording of all seven sonatas offers the listener the opportunity of following developments in Ullmann’s writing over the final eight years of his life. The 1912 Steinway piano, with its fresh, open sound and wide range of timbral and expressive possibilities, was an optimal choice for this music. Tsalka’s articulate and sensitive reading gives each sonata palpable musical life, the works coming across as “contemporary” and as relevant to current musical thought today as when they were written. This is a great and lasting strength of Viktor Ullmann’s writing. Michael Tsalka finds a fine balance between his understanding of the background and circumstances of each sonata and his objective playing of some of the finest piano music composed in the first half of the 20th century.

An artist of great versatility, Tsalka performs repertoire from early Baroque- to contemporary music on keyboard instruments from harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, chamber organ, to historic pianos and the modern piano. His performance schedule takes him all over the world, where he also holds master classes.




Michael Tsalka