Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ensemble PHOENIX and VOCE PHOENIX in "Tarantella Napoletana"at the 46th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Dr. Myrna Herzog
One of the final events of the 46th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival was “Tarantella Napoletana – Music from Spanish Naples”. Members of Ensemble PHOENIX and VOCE PHOENIX (musical director, conductor and staging Myrna Herzog) presented this program of works on October 18th, 2014 at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, situated on the site of an early fortress site in the Jerusalem Hills.

The Chapel Royal of Naples was the sacred musical establishment of the Spanish court in Naples, beginning with the Aragonese Court of Naples and continuing under the Habsburgs, the Bourbons and Joseph Napoleon. Influence of the Spanish rule in Baroque Naples was an element running through most of the works heard at this concert. Cristofaro Caresana (1640-1709) was born in Venice but settled in Naples before the age of 20; there he worked in theatre, was a singer and organist in the Royal Chapel, then becoming maestro di cappella of the Conservatorio di S. Onofrio in 1668. Caresana’s works have received little to no performances in Israel. One could surmise that the PHOENIX performance of three of the composer’s succinct, quasi-theatrical Nativity cantatas were Israeli premieres. Colored by the composer’s dissatisfaction with Spanish rule in Naples, “La Caccia del Toro” (Hunting the Bull) presents the dilemma between Toro the bull (baritone Guy Pelc) and Humility (soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir). (Choosing Toro as a character also suggests criticism of the fact that the Spanish wanted to introduce bull-fighting into Naples). Guy Pelc gave an intense portrayal of the unbending, power-struck Toro, his sturdy, rich voice ringing out dramatically, changing with each gesture, as he vied with the wise, courageous figure of Humility, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir. She was expressive, well cast and “proud to bear the title of damsel”. The intensity of the work was broken minimally by few choruses, a gentle and beautifully crafted duet sung by tenor Jacob Halperin with the mellow involvement of contralto Yael Izkovich, as well as some pleasing instrumental moments, with beautifully wrought recorder playing (also, throughout the program) on the part of Uri Dror and Adi Silberberg.

No less unconventional in character is Caresana’s “La Tarantella”, in which it is thought we hear the first ever appearance of the tarantella melody in art music. In a setting of the sophisticated text, encompassing pastoral folklore and the Bible, the artists, opening with angels (Michal Okon, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir) waking the sleeping shepherds on stage with the news of Christ’s birth. This small masterpiece was steeped with energy and joy, the gentle use of castanets a reminder of Spanish presence in Naples. Here, in an intimate and convincing soliloquy, we hear Pelc now portraying an anguished, and dejected Pluto:
‘I flutter over the vast sky
Too disdainful of beauties,
But I have fallen, so now I sigh,
Blind King of an ominous empire
Fulminated giant, black angel…’
Jacob Halperin’s bright, clean tenor solo was gratifying, as was the entertaining echo piece, naïve in its confirmation of the details of the Christmas story. The four singers, constantly alert, effectively fused short phrases into unified sections made up of fast-exchange responses to create a crowd scene. The tarantella chorus itself, varied in scoring, supported by pleasing filigree plucked sounds and interludes, provided the centerpiece of the work:
‘To the rocks, the burrows, the forests
The wild beasts have become docile.
Every square in the woods is flowery,
As life returns to the world.
To the forests, the valleys, the caves,
Cherish, revere, worship this beautiful night!’

“La Veglia” (The Vigil) offers the most unconventional and daring of the three plots. The setting is a game of “Ombre”, a card game popular in 17th century Naples. Jesus is portrayed as a gambler who, dying, wins the game. In this work of strong characterization, fine, joyous dance music and rich tonal effects, all singers displayed involvement and understanding of the decidedly theatrical aspect of the work, as its as yet unresolved moral dilemma posed questions to the listener. With Herzog’s settings never static, instrumental textures produced constant new color, Adi Silberberg’s playing of the colascione (a plucked instrument of the lute family) infusing the ensemble sound with delicate color and authenticity. With the singers gradually moving forward, we heard the soothing legato lines of the magical “Dormi o ninno” (Sleep, little baby) lullaby suspended over a simple but inebriating ostinato accompaniment evoking the rocking of a baby. The cantata ended on a joyful note, with singers and Herzog herself joining to ‘give applause…to the value of the player…’ Myrna Herzog drew her settings for the cantatas from the manuscripts themselves and translated the Italian texts into English. Uri A. Dror translated the latter into Hebrew. Hearing these works performed was a fine opportunity to appreciate the style of Naples’ specific form of religiosity – a spontaneous, gregarious and “secular” affair, one of angels and devils, celebrated with works that were vigorous and ostentatious, an aesthetic of color, directness and contrasts. These vivacious performances of the Caresana cantatas, therefore, were a reminder of the sumptuous Christmas festivities and performances in Naples, the immense and chaotic capital of the Spanish viceroyalty. Myrna Herzog’s staging, though understated, pointed to the focus and meaning of each development.

The Abu Gosh program included two instrumental works by Andrea Falconieri (c.1640-1709). Born in Naples, lutenist, theorbist and guitarist Falconieri made his living as a lutenist at the court in Parma, also in Florence, Rome and Modena. Peripatetic in lifestyle, he spent several years in Spain before returning to Italy. His only book of instrumental music was published in 1650, with each piece dedicated to a member of Spanish nobility residing in Naples. Herzog’s instrumentation brought out the inner emotional and descriptive content of each piece. In “La Suave Melodia”, she had the melody alternating between violin (Tali Goldberg) and recorder (Silberberg), setting each against a differentiated continuo. In the second part of the piece – a Corrente – Herzog told me she had “played even more with instrumentation, alternating solo and tutti and adding Spanish-like percussion”. In “Battalla de Barabaso yemo de Satanas” (Battle of Barabbas, Son-in-law of Satan) we are once again confronted with the conflict of good and evil but, despite the work’s religious implications, Falconieri was also making a political statement…that he supported the Spanish, the devils representing the Italians!! For this piece, Myrna Herzog chose four instruments – two violins, two recorder - rather than two, to engage in battle. The result was colorful. This was music-making to be seen as well as heard. Lutenists were the instrumental stars of their day and Falconieri’s itinerant life and opinions showed him to be no conventional character; however, the PHOENIX instrumentalists gave a finely balanced, elegant and well varied performance of the work, vivid but never excessive.The ensemble was absolutely superb.

The concert had one more treat in store – soprano Michal Okon’s solo performance of Orazio Michi dell’Arpa’s strophic lullaby “Ninna nanna al bambino Gesù (Lullaby for baby Jesus). Now virtually unknown, Orazio Michi (1595-1641) was born near Naples, entering into the service of Cardinal Montalto in Rome at a young age and then of Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy. He was a virtuoso who hobnobbed with high society. Admired for his virtuosic playing of the harp, his playing was compared with that of Frescobaldi on the harpsichord and Kapsberger, on theorbo. No new face to PHOENIX and the early music scene, Michal Okon has performed and held master classes in Israel, Europe and the USA, also promoting contemporary works. Her tender, unmannered performance of “Ninna nanna” was communicative, exquisitely tranquil and warm, her voice well projected into the dimensions of the church.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ensemble Flauto Dolce in concert at the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar

A major event of the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar (director: Drora Bruck) on October 13th 2014 at the Lin and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music was a concert performed by four members of Ensemble Flauto Dolce, Romania – artistic director Zoltán Majó (recorders), Mária Szabó (recorders), Erich Türk (harpsichord) and Mihaela Maxim (soprano). Ensemble Flauto Dolce was established by Zoltán Majó within the framework of the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj in 2000, with the aim of familiarizing the recorder and its repertoire to Romanian audiences. The ensemble presents from Renaissance to contemporary works of traditional- and art music in different recorder settings, in particular, performing early music from Romania found in old Romanian- and other European manuscripts. As the guest ensemble of the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar, Flauto Dolce’s wish was to bring this Romanian repertoire to the attention of seminar participants and audiences, both in concerts and master classes. This was the ensemble's first Israeli appearance. The Romanian Cultural Institute, Tel Aviv, supported Flauto Dolce’s participation in the seminar. This writer also attended sessions of the International Conference on the Study of Performance, Past and Present (conference chairs: Dr. Uri Golomb, Dr. Alon Schab), in which presentations by Erich Türk (Interpretation inspired by period instruments: Transylvania’s Baroque organ positives) and Mária Szabó (Early music from Romania…musical performance in Romania in the 17th to 19th centuries, based on original manuscripts) shed light on the very many different geographical and ethnic traditions and styles feeding into the wide repertoire of Romanian music and culture.

The concert program included interesting pieces from three regions of Romania today – Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia. What has characterized and continues to do so in these regions is the coexistence of several cultures and nationalities (Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Hassidic Jews, Armenians, etc) and religious groups (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed Church, Muslim and Jewish). Researcher of early Romanian music manuscripts Mária Szabó writes: “This colorful mixture of different styles and influences is reflected in the musical materials that can be found in the original manuscripts…preserved in various archives throughout Romania, which represent a valuable contribution to the history of East-European music”.

The concert opened with three pieces from Codex Caioni (Transylvania, 17th century), the first a harpsichord piece, then two sacred vocal works. Johannes Caioni was a Franciscan monk, musician, folklorist, humanist and organ builder, whose collection includes works of composers, folk songs, courtly dances, church music and works performed by high society and lower.

We heard some works of German composers in Romania, firstly two songs by organist Gabriel Reilich (1643-1677) from Hermannstadt (today Sibiu, Romania); then “Ach, süsses Wort” (Oh, sweet word) by Johann Sartorius (1712-1787). Also from Hermannstadt, Sartorius, an organist in a Lutheran church, composed cantatas, writing in a style between Baroque and Classical. Türk’s tasteful performance of the galant-style harpsichord Arioso & Sonata by Martin Schneider (1748-1812) from the Choral Book 1779 from Braşov (formerly Kronstadt) was a finely played example of house music, of keyboard fare accessible to the listener but demanding of good technique and stylistic accuracy.

Worlds away, yet from the same vicinity, we heard some anonymous traditional Armenian songs from Gherla (formerly Armenopolis) a cathedral city close to Cluj, founded by Armenians. Here, Ensemble Flauto Dolce transported the audience to the world of oriental music and culture and mystery, with arrangements now not anchored in western harmony, but with melodies of octave doubling and with the use of percussion instruments. In one song, soprano Mihaela Maxim, in warm, honeyed sounds, was joined in song Majó in an appealing song arrangement, whereas, in another, she adopted a folk-like manner of chest voice singing – earthy, rustic and real. Altogether, the folk material, however artistically set, never lost its authentic feel; it was embellished by some charming effects - finger-snapping, a vase used as a percussion instrument and typical bourdon accompaniments, the augmented second often present in its folk scales.

The song repertoire of the Hassidic Jewish community from the Maramuresh region was beautifully represented, sung in Yiddish and presented with the characteristic mix of joy, humor and underlying melancholy. In the first song, a rain drum, producing an inebriating rain effect, accompanied a prayer for rain. Mihaela Maxim captured the Hassidic inflection as she convinced and entertained, with the instrumentalists evoking something of the carefree playing of Hassidic wedding musicians.

And then there was an item to make all recorder players sit up and rub their eyes – a G.Ph.Telemann recorder sonata for two alto instruments, discovered in a 1757 manuscript at Sfântu Gheorghe (formerly Sepsiszenthgyörgy), probably originating at the Dresden court. Had we not played all the Telemann sonatas, familiar with every note of them? Apparently not! Performed sympathetically and with much dialogue by Majó and Szabó, the three-movement B flat major sonata made its Israeli debut, the lower voice (Szabó) mostly supplying harmonic support to the upper, more melodic voice.

The concert ended with two anonymous Romanian songs and some old Romanian dances from Moldavia and Wallachia. Maxim’s theatrical flair and facial expressions lent much humor to the songs as the instrumentalists added their contribution to the fun, ending the program with all care thrown to the winds in a wildly hopping Romanian dance.

This was an evening bristling with interest, of variety and very fine and carefully stylized playing. Zoltan Majo's arrangements were tasteful, their use of tenor and bass recorders providing an active, mellow but non-obtrusive setting for many of the songs. Mihaela Maxim took on each style and mood with informed versatility, her fine, richly colored voice communicative and pleasing. Erich Türk’s explanations throughout the evening added much to the audience’s understanding of the breadth and abundance of Romanian music.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harpsichordist Rinaldo Alessandrini (Italy) in a recital at the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar

One of the major events of the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar (director Drora Bruck) was a harpsichord recital by Rinaldo Alessandrini (Italy), one of the course tutors. The concert took place at the Lin and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music on October 11 2014. Rinaldo Alessandrini (b. 1960), a renowned recitalist on harpsichord, fortepiano and organ, is considered one of today’s most authoritative interpreters of Monteverdi. Founder, continuo player/leader of “Concerto Italiano”, a leading vocal and instrumental ensemble of Italian Baroque performance, Alessandrini aims to bring out the expressive and cantabile elements inherent in Italian music “often elusive, expressive and cantabile elements” of 17th century Italian music, “the most fertile and innovative” of all periods, in his words. He conducts Italian Baroque opera, those including Händel’s Italian operas, reviving lesser-known operas of such composers as Cavalli and Vinci. Alessandrini’s award-winning CDs include “One Hundred Fifty Years of Italian Music” (harpsichord, organ) and, with “Concerto Italiano”, all of Monteverdi’s eight books of Madrigals.

Playing on an A. Dulcken two-manual harpsichord built by Klop (Holland), Alessandrini opened with the Ciaccona from the enigmatic composer Bernado Storace’s (c.1637-c.1707) only existing collection of pieces “Selva di varie compositione” (Venice, 1664). Virtuosic and dramatic, the artist lavished passion and intensity on the piece, surprising the listener with the occasional unexpected fleeting moment of different color and showing Storace’s varied agenda for what an ostinato bass can suggest. In strong contrast, we heard the artist in a poised, thoughtful reading of (Frescobaldi’s pupil) German composer J.J.Frohberger’s (1616-1667) “Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della…Fernando IV…”, as he took time to spell out the rich, varying, meditative fabric of the melancholic rhetoric in this heart-rending lament written on the sudden death of the Emperor’s 19-year-old son and embellishing it with opulent spreads.

Back in Italy, we heard dance music by Venetian harpsichordist, lutenist and organist Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643), also known as an established composer and performer of dance music. Although categorized as “low art” dances, his collection of idealized dances of 1621 actually represents the high point of Venetian keyboard dances of the time. Alessandrini’s vivid and majestic performance of them presented their sophisticated writing, interesting figuration and colorful, refreshing harmonies in the varied (also geographically) dance tunes set with mostly chordal accompaniments. Presenting each in different tempi and with some pleasing ornamentation, the artist never lost sight of the character of each dance and its origins. The first half of the concert ended with Alessandrini’s splendid and bold performance of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s (1583-1643) last work “Cento partite sopra passacaglia”, a somewhat approximate title for a continuum of passacaglias, chaconnes and one corrente. In a tireless stream of small pieces, the artist, with the determination and deftness of a quick-change artist, took the listener through the many keys, modes, metres and tempi of this giant dance suite, the more leisurely pieces dictating more freedom.

The second half of the program focused on works by J.S.Bach (1685-1750). Bach’s Concerto on D major BWV 972 is one of the several works of German and Italian composers the composer transcribed for harpsichord (and organ). Bach did more than adapting them for keyboard - he sometimes transposed them to different keys, added ornamentation, changing tempo markings and harmonies. He also stamped them with his personal style. The BWV 972 is modeled on Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins and continuo Op.3 no.9. Alessandrini took on board Bach’s virtuosic writing and predilection for the extraverted Italian concerto style, infusing the work with positive energy “nach italienischen Gusto”, his playing of the middle movement’s “Affekt” graced with Vivaldi’s original written-out embellishments touching and cantabile. Still in the Italian mind-set, we heard Bach’s early “Aria alla maniera italiana” BWV 989 (c.1709), a simple chorale-type (original) theme followed by ten virtuosic variations. Opening with a pleasing arioso touch, Alessandrini’s playing of the expressive theme and its flamboyant developments was contrasted, intense and rewarding. The program ended with another early Bach keyboard work (Bach was 19) – “Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilitissimo” BWV 992 - one theory being that the work was performed when Bach’s brother Johann Jacob left to become oboist in the army of Charles XII of Sweden. Alessandrini guided the listener through the tenderness, joy and melancholy, the key shifts, chromatics and complex fugues of the composer’s only programmatic instrumental piece.

Rinaldo Alessandrini’s interesting program presented a number of works not generally heard on the Israeli concert stage. Very much at home with virtuosic harpsichord repertoire, he is an artist for whom variety, articulacy and vibrancy come together in performance that is gregarious and focused. For his encore, the artist played a short, somewhat enigmatic original piece, allowing his playing to pause on the more emotionally charged chords of its melancholic, bluesy sound spectrum, to end unfinished.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Atar Trio in a concert from Tartini to Piazzolla at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

The Atar Trio
With the cool winds of Autumn about to make themselves felt in Jerusalem, people made the best of the pleasant, balmy evening of September 27th 2014 to attend a “Summer Nights in the Courtyard” concert of the Atar Trio and sip a glass of wine in the medieval cloister courtyard of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Atar Trio – pianist Ofer Shelley, violinist Tanya Beltzer and ‘cellist Marina Katz – regularly performs in the tranquil surroundings of this church. The concert was called for 21:00 in the hope that the bird population lodging in the rich foliage of the courtyard would have ceased their twittering and be asleep for the night.

Following words of welcome by the Provost of the Church of the Redeemer, Wolfgang Schmidt, the concert opened with Giuseppe Tartini’s (1692-1770) Trio Sonata in G major, one of the composer’s “30 Sonate piccole”. In a work rich in Romantic lyricism and charm, violinist Tanya Beltzer was in her element with Tartini’s virtuosic writing, his deep and strong feelings, as she gave expression to the refined, poignant and ornamental writing of one of the greatest violinists and theorists of the 18th century. Remaining in Italy, we heard Tomaso Albinoni’s (1671-1751) enigmatic “Adagio” (composed largely or wholly by 20th century musicologist Remo Giazotto), a piece that has undergone endless arrangements, also serving as background music in films and television series and bandied around by pop singers and jazz pianists. The Atar Trio has devised its own arrangement of the well-known piece, making use of textures, contrast and a little flexing of melodic lines.

Then to a work from the most Classical repertoire for piano trio, Haydn’s Trio in C major, Hob. XV:21, one of three trios published in 1797 and dedicated to a London friend, Theresa Bartolozzi. Although it belongs to repertoire associated with the amateur musician of the time, here is chamber music at its best, with the demanding piano part attesting to Ms. Bartolozzi’s undisputed competence on the piano. The Atar players communicated the work’s lyrical grace, its intensity, its moments of tranquility and Haydnesque major-minor playfulness, as well as the work’s intrinsically conversational aspect. With the first notes of the opening Allegro, the bird population of the Redeemer Church courtyard, clearly Haydn aficionados, awoke to accompany the work with effusive twittering. The Haydn Trio was followed by “Duett”, the third piece from Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Fantasiestücke Op.88, its gentle dialogue between violin and ‘cello played out over Shelley’s sensitive piano accompaniment.

The second half of the program consisted of a group of dances – a potpourri of works by various composers from different countries and in a number of very different styles – beginning with a Tango by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), played with sensuous melancholy, its sultry Latin temperament enhanced by the use of rubato. Still in Argentinean mode, the players gave an outstanding performance of “Autumn” (1969) from “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by the grand master of the “new” tango Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992); in playing radiant with freedom, emotion and color, the Atar Trio gave expression to the piece’s sophisticated blend of Classicism and jazz, its intensity and mood changes, as they wove virtuosic solos into the texture. The Atar Trio’s performance of “Three Irish Dances”, arranged by versatile Nashville master fiddler Craig Duncan, was songful, hearty and foot-tapping, the ‘cello (Marina Katz) often taking the role of second violin. Two pieces adapted from Marc Lavry’s “Three Jewish Dances for Piano” (1945) provided the program with Israeli content: played with much delicacy and a hint of percussion (on the part of Katz), the “Yemenite Wedding Dance” evoked a demure Yemenite bride performing the dance in small steps with gentle, circular hand movements. Another pleasing arrangement played with verve and abandon, Lavry’s “Hora”, a lively and earthy Israeli dance, conjured up the energy and joy of the popular Israeli dance. Born in Latvia, Lavry (1903-1967) was the first composer to introduce the hora into Israeli art music. Another hora played – the popular encore piece “Hora Staccato” – by Romanian composer and violin virtuoso Grigoraş Dinicu (1889-1949), was given a splendid performance by Tanya Belzer, who took on board the piece’s huge technical demands - staccato bowing, rapid note successions, witty scales and spicy verve. The concert ended with sympathetic arrangements of two New Year songs written by the “first lady of Israeli song and poetry” Naomi Shemer (1930-2004).

The Atar Trio’s playing addresses many styles. Not confining its concerts only to conventional trio repertoire, the three artists offer their listeners high quality across-the-board programs. This outdoor concert was no exception. The audience was well entertained.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Israel Contemporary Players host the Tremolo Ensemble in the opening concert of the 2014-2015 season

Maestro Zsolt Nagy
The Israel Contemporary Players, under their long-standing house conductor Zsolt Nagy, opened the 24th season with a collection of works by some of the 20th century’s greatest composers. The ensemble was joined by Ensemble Tremolo (director: Tomer Yariv) and soloists. Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky serve as the ICP’s musical directors. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on September 21st 2014.

As in the ICP’s opening concert 23 years ago, this program opened with “Ionisation” by French-born Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). It is scored exclusively for percussion instruments: crash cymbal, bass drums, concerros (muffled cow-bells struck with a drum stick), high and low tam-tams, gong, bongos, side drum, high and low sirens, slapstick (clapper), guiros (gourd), woodblocks, claves (two wood dowels), triangles, snare drums, maracas, tarole (a high-pitched drum), suspended cymbals, sleigh bells, tubular chimes, cymbals, castanets, celesta, tambourine, anvils and piano. With only chimes, celesta and piano bearing equal-tempered pitch. “Ionisation” (1929-1931) begun six years after the composer immigrated to the USA and referred to by the composer as the “liberation of sound”, became a “landmark”, the the first of many all-percussion scores to be written in the 20th century. In what could have culminated as a chaotic din in the wrong hands, the young artists here were meticulous in bringing to life the score’s subtlety and order, with its richly layered and changing sonorities – high, medium, low but also those produced by skin, metal and wood-tone - its small groups, its homophonic and unison moments, wrenching tempo changes and the grand sonorous coda issued in by the pitched instruments (although pitch here is immaterial) - piano, celesta and chimes – finally fading away with bells, tam-tams and suspended cymbals. The precision and immediacy of the performance were as gripping as was watching it all happen.

Then to the very different sound world of Henry Cowell (1897-1965), one of the most far-reaching and open-minded musical revolutionaries of the USA, a composer who viewed any sound as musical substance with which he could work. In the “Aeolian Harp” (c.1923), a piano piece, Cowell instructs the performer to play inside the piano by sweeping, scraping, strumming and muting the strings. “Aeolian Harp” takes the ancient idea of harps being played by the wind; the piano is used as a zither, with the performer standing at the keyboard, plucking solo notes and strumming chords, while holding down keys in chord formation to produce enchanting harmonies. In his introduction to the score, the composer gives very detailed instructions as to how to produce the effects he has in mind. Pianist Naaman Wagner, using Cowell’s old-fashioned harmonic idiom in this new setting, fashioned the work in its glistening delicacy and varied dynamics. Now based in Berlin, Naaman Wagner is a soloist and chamber musician and a regular performer with the ICP.

Naaman Wagner then performed German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s (b.1935) piano study “Guero” (1969). The piece stems from the period when the composer was defining his style of “musique concrète instrumentale” (tape music pioneer Pierre Schaefer initiated the term “musique concrète”), “in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves…” in Lachenmann’s words. In “Guero”, the composer takes a thorough exploration of the instrument’s acoustic possibilities as his starting point and begins to build structures. The guero, or guiro is an open-ended hollow gourd with parallel notches along one side; it is played by rubbing a stick along the notches. In his program notes, Lachenmann describes “Guero” as a “six-manual variant of the eponymous Latin American instrument. Re-creating the composer’s rejection of tradition piano technique, Naaman Wagner showed the order present in the course of the piece, moving from the vertical surfaces of the white keys to their horizontal surfaces, via the black keys into the piano, playing the pegs and, finally, the strings, using the rippling sound of fingernails along the keys as the work’s basic material. Naaman Wagner is confident and convincing, enlisting the listener’s curiosity as he speaks in Lachenmann’s musical language with comfortable fluency.

Following a dangerously unproductive three year spell in Bela Bartok’s life, Concerto no.1 for Piano and Orchestra was written in 1926 along with other piano works for his upcoming concert appearances. An impressive showpiece, Bartok (1881-1945) wrote it in order to have a new piece to perform with orchestras. The solo piano role - with its large, awkward leaps, dense clusters demanding wide stretches of the hand, relentless speed and severe demands on the outer, weaker fingers - says much about the composer’s own virtuosity on the instrument. In his search for new sounds and sonorities, Bartok sees the piano as a percussion instrument. This was the last large piece in which Bartok was to use a key signature. The ICP concert included the second movement of Bela Bartok’s Concerto no.1, scored for piano, winds and percussion, but with no strings. We heard Naaman Wagner as soloist in a haunting dialogue between piano and percussion, the reverie supported by filigree percussion playing in a sensitive, searching reading of the movement.

Then to “Okho”, a unique, poly-cultural percussion work by ethnic Greek composer, theorist and architect-engineer Iannis Xanakis (1922-2001), scored for three performers on djembe and bass drum and premiered in Paris in 1989. A naturalized French citizen, the composer wrote the work for celebrations of the French Bicentennial. The djembe, or djembé, is a rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum originally from West Africa. It is powerful and resonant and can produce a variety of sounds. A study in repetition and different ways of introducing irregularity, the work has six sections, each different in intensity, tempo and rhythmic texture. Lior Eldad, Ziv Kaplan and Daniel Solomonov, each playing a number of drums, gave a precise, polished and totally engaging performance. As it proceeded, one’s ear began to pick up on an interesting play of pitches.

Of his “Music for Pieces of Wood” (1973), American composer Steve Reich wrote that the work had grown out of “a desire to make music with the simplest possible instruments…Performed by five players, its rhythmic structure is based entirely on the process of rhythmic build-ups or the substitution of beats for rests, and is in three sections of decreasing pattern lengths: 6/4, 4/4, 3/4.” Pitch is established by the wooden claves, but once the piece has begun, this becomes a background sound basis. Each of the three sections employs a new progression to build density and is connected to the neighboring section via the basic quarter note pulse presented by the first player. In solos, smaller combinations and tutti, Lior Eldad, Daniel Solomonov, Nadav Ovadia, Tomer Galili and Oded Geizhals exhibited amazing intensity of concentration and inter-communication in the work, the text of which is written in precise notation but with instructions to repeat each bar “approximately” the number of times indicated.

The program ended as it left the audience right at the turn of the 21st century with Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles” (2000), a setting of poems by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists playing the following instruments: triangle, crotales (antique cymbals), pair of cymbals (high, with a coughing sound), cymbal (sounding like a broken pot), 2 suspended cymbals (high, low), tam-tam or gong (low), 2 cowbells (one dull, one lower), Japanese bell (high), Japanese “rin” temple bells (tuned), Burmese gongs (tuned), tubular bells, 3 snare drums, 2 high rototoms (rotary drums), bongo or conga (tuned), 3 bongos, tambourine, 2 tom-toms (one low but not resonant), log drum, wood drum (muffled), low slit drum, 2 bass drums (medium, low), 4 temple blocks, woodblock, sandpaper blocks, claves, castanets, Japanese wooden rattle, sistrum (rattle), chimes (unpitched), maraca, ratchet, guiro, vibraslap (stiff wire connecting a wood ball to a hollow box), large whip, 2 slide whistles, railway whistle, 2 police whistles, 2 siren whistles, metal pipe, sopranino ocarina in F, 2 soprano ocarinas in C, 3 recorders (soprano, alto, tenor), 4 Hohner M270 chromonicas, lion’s roar, 2 flexatones (flexible metal sheet suspended in a wire frame), glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, 2 marimbas and bass marimba. Joining the highly skilful percussionists was Israeli contralto Noa Frenkel, a highly versatile and gregarious contralto with a rich palette of colors, a singer with a repertoire spanning from Renaissance to contemporary music. She gave superb insight into each of the seven miniatures, with their play of the surreal and the absurd. From the first utterance of the opening song, “Ballad”, performed with abundant chest voice, wild facial expression and uncanny laughter, she swept the audience into a world governed by the unpredictable:
‘A mountain walks.
Another mountain comes towards it.
The wolves howl:
Do not crush us!
I am a mountain.
You, too, are a mountain.
We are indifferent to that.’
Frenkel collaborates closely with the ensemble: in the homophonic “Chinese Temple”, the effect is decidedly bizarre as she uses her voice is as an unpitched bell. “Bitter-Sweet”, evocative and melodious, is the closest piece to a strophic Hungarian folk song, whereas in “Parakeet” Frenkel creates colorful patter in gibberish. Noa Frenkel and the instrumentalists had the audience sitting at the edge of their seats as they presented the theatrical work in all its modernist complexity colored by both childish directness and sophistication with a touch of melancholy. Weöres spoke of art as a land of possibility rather than reality or, rather, “it describes level of reality beneath the troubled surface.”

The Israel Contemporary Players’s opening concert for the 2014-2015 season presented some landmarks of modern music. It was a celebration of fine performance, much of it percussion-centred, of rigorous preparation, deep enquiry into the works and conviction of the musical message of each. It was also a celebration of the outstanding, high level of young Israeli performers.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Vengerov Festival at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv

Violinist/conductor Maxim Vengerov
Following its Tokyo success, the Vengerov Festival was brought to Israel, taking place September 19th and 20th 2014 at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv. This writer attended the second of the two Tel Aviv concerts, that on September 20th. A concert of two Russian works, it featured conductor Vag Papian, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and Maxim Vengerov himself both as solo violinist and conductor. The concert was moderated by Yossi Schiffmann.

Maxim Vengerov is one of today’s greatest violinists. Born in 1974, he began his solo career at age 5, making his first recording at age 10. In 2007, he turned his attention to conducting, studying with Vag Papian and Yuri Simonov, making his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall. In 2010, he became first chief conductor of the Gstaad Festival Orchestra. Maestro Vengerov divides his time between violin performance, conducting and teaching; he also serves on competition juries. He is visiting professor of the Swiss Menuhin Academy and Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Maxim Vengerov’s plans include the launch of his own recording label VMV (Vengerov Music Vision). He plays on an ex-Kreutzer Stradivarius (1727) violin.

In March of 1878, recovering from his failed marriage and a botched suicide attempt, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1843-1893) living temporarily in Clarens, Switzerland, sketched his Violin Concerto in D major within eleven days. Visiting him there, his student and friend Yosif Kotek offered him advice on violin matters. On April 1st, the composer and Yosif played through the concerto for Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. Both Modest and Yosif thought the slow movement to be weak. Four days later, the composer wrote a new slow movement. By April 11th the concerto, dedicated to the great violinist Leopold Auer, was complete. Auer, however, dismissed the piece as unplayable and Tchaikovsky, deeply hurt, feared the work would end up in “the limbo of the hopelessly forgotten”. When the work was finally premiered in 1881 by violinist Hans Richter in an under-rehearsed performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that he now realized there was music “whose stink one can hear”, claiming that the violin was “no longer played”, rather “pulled about, torn, beaten black and blue”. Auer was later to change his mind, considering the concerto “difficult” but not unplayable and the work’s innate lyricism and popularity has pushed Hanslick’s offensive remarks into obscurity.

We heard Maxim Vengerov as solo violinist in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D major for violin and orchestra, Op.35, with Vag Papian conducting the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion in a performance which was both exciting and tasteful, a performance presenting the heart of the music rather than a show of violin acrobatics. Vengerov’s palette of color, technique and emotion was drawn on strategically, each musical gesture articulate and paced well as he presented the work’s lyricism, playfulness, intensity and its big heart. Vengerov’s technical ease and virtuosity is never exhibitionistic, never standing in the way of musicality and eloquence. The performance’s strength was the sensitive collaboration between Papian, orchestra and Vengerov, a balance between the concerto’s sheer melodiousness, the composer’s fragility of soul in the Canzonetta:Andante movement, for example, and the devil-may-care, folk-like joy of the final Allegro vivacissimo. Vag Papian wields magical control, creating fine balance between soloist and orchestra, between tutti, solo passages and orchestral “asides”, as he presents a musical canvas to delight the senses. The Rishon LeZion Orchestra boasts a collection of very fine players, as heard in several poignant wind solos interspersed throughout the work.

Then to a very different realm of Russian music with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) “Scheherazade” Symphonic Suite Op.35, composed in the summer of 1888 and premiered in November of that year in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting. The score calls for two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, tympani, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, tam-tam, harp and strings. Consisting of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures, the work was inspired by “The Arabian Nights”, a collection of Arabic, Persian and Indian tales. This choice reflects the composer’s attraction to faraway places, to fantasy and the exotic. On a holiday in Bakchisaray in central Crimea in 1874, Rimsky-Korsakov was intoxicated by the sounds he heard. “It was while hearing the gypsy musicians of Bakchisaray” he wrote “that I first became acquainted with oriental music in its natural state, and I believe I caught the main features of its character”. He prefaced the “Scheherazade” score with a reminder of the story behind the collection of stories: to sabotage Sultan Shahahriar’s vow to kill each of his wives after the wedding night, the Sultana Scheherazade spins an intricate web of tales, one each night for 1001 nights, ultimately fascinating the sultan and winning him over. Later, in his autobiography “My Musical Life”, the composer denied the work’s programmatic content, claiming that the music depicted no actual characters or episodes and that “all these seeming leitmotifs are nothing but pure musical material…to direct only slightly the listener’s path that my own fancy had traveled…that the hearer…should carry away the impression that it is undoubtedly an oriental narrative…” The work quickly became a favorite Romantic concert piece and a prominent work of descriptive symphonic repertoire.

Following intermission at the Tel Aviv concert, one noticed an unusual prop placed adjacent to the conductor’s podium - a table. This served the purpose of conductor and soloist, both roles to be performed by Maxim Vengerov as he alternated each role deftly, his mellifluous solo parts (perhaps as the story-teller) reappearing to introduce or “comment” on each movement. From the fierce and commanding opening theme, Vengerov had the audience listening actively as the work unfolded in its mysterious and magical moments, its urgency and its yearning. Vengerov shaped the music with passion and affection, his conducting language as expressive and precise as his playing, bringing the score to life and leading the orchestra into some powerful climaxes. Rimsky-Korsakov’s score abounds in virtuoso opportunities for principal players in the orchestra and these, together with the percussion section’s many gestures, were a handsome-sounding treat for the audience to hear and to view. Going for crisp textures and transparency of sound, Vengerov invited his orchestra and listeners to step into the world of fairy tales, fantasy, drama and caprice and to savor the brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s marvelous orchestration.

For the encore, we heard “Meditation”, a symphonic intermezzo from Jules Massenet’s lyric opera “Thaïs” (1893), with Maxim Vengerov rendering its honeyed melodies suggestive of sweet and poignant tenderness, sorrow, tenderness and drama. This ended a festive concert of works both popular and familiar to audiences, a program of concert-hall favorites, played, however, with the freshness and discovery that lodge a safe distance from pedestrianism.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bach Suites for Solo 'Cello at the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

The 17th Jerusalem International Festival of Chamber Music took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from September 4th to 13th 2014. Well attended, the concerts attracted music-lovers from far and wide. This year’s concerts commemorated “two diverse but, each in their own way, highly significant anniversaries…the centenary of the outbreak of World War I…[and] the 160th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss”… in the words of pianist Elena Bashkirova, the festival’s artistic director. Another focus of the festival was the chamber sextet. With the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival drawing to a close, this writer attended a concert on September 12th , a program very different in format to the typical JICMF program – three of J.S.Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied ‘Cello, each performed by a different ‘cellist.

Gabriel Schwabe, born 1988 in Berlin to German-Spanish parents, began playing the ‘cello at age nine, studying under Prof. Catalin Ilea at the University of the Arts (Berlin) from 2000 to 2008. The recipient of many prestigious prizes, a soloist, chamber musician and recitalist, he has been artistic director of the “Resonanzen Siegburg” chamber music since 2012. Gabriel Schwabe plays a ‘cello by Francesco Ruggieri (Cremona, 1674). Pablo Casals, who in 1889, at the age of 13, found a copy of the suites in a used music store, eventually saving them from the fate of didactic exercises and restoring them to their rightful status as ‘cello works of primary importance, characterized Suite no.2 in d minor as “tragic”. Opening the Prelude in a spontaneous, slightly flexed manner, Schwabe’s strategic playing breathed freshness and a constantly lively presence of sound. Characterized by the contrast between fast runs and arpeggios in high- and low register, the artist guided the listener through the many gestures of the Allemande with a vivid, singing sound. Following a feisty, coherent, highly spirited reading of the Courante, Schwabe’s treatment of the Sarabande was meditative and intimate, his tone broad, as he explored the mysteries of the movement. Excitement, intensity and dissonance mingled with the carefree joie-de-vivre of the Gigue, concluding the performance with a sense of freedom. Choosing discrete, minimal use of vibrato, Gabriel Schwabe’s playing of the work spoke of personal involvement and youthful energy.

Born in 1982 to musician parents in Rochester, New York, Alisa Weilerstein began ‘cello studies at age four, making her debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra with Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme”. As a soloist, she has performed widely. An active chamber musician, Weilerstein also performs with her father violinist Donald Weilerstein and mother Vivian Hornik Weilerstein as the Weilerstein Trio. Highly involved in contemporary music, Alisa Weilerstein has worked extensively with composers Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach and Joseph Hallman. She is the recipient of several awards. Alisa Weilerstein plays on a 1790 William Forster ‘cello. At the festival concert, she played Suite no.3 in C major. Presenting the Prelude’s cascading 16th notes and shifting patterns with huge dynamic interest, virtuosity and temperament, Weilestein, taking the movement to its rich chordal cadenza with all its rhetorical impact, was in her element and promising to keep the audience at the edge of their seats. In the Allemande, the artist used Bach’s turns, double-stops and thirty-second notes to present the movement’s hide-and-seek elasticity and originality, still weaving some sweetness and naïveté through it. Following Weilerstein’s gregariously emotional and spectacular playing of the Courante, the Sarabande was taken very slowly, as she played out its languishing message out note by note, with melodic lines free of ornaments, save for slight vibrato used to color longer notes. Choosing to play Bourrée I with charm and elegance, her detached notes rendering it light-of-foot, Bourrée II was more singing and serious, with a tinge of pain. The Gigue, shifting from the tender to the vehement, from calm to urgency, the occasional dissonant moment hinting here at the common jig-like folk dance, bristled festively with positive energy. Weilerstein’s eye-to-eye rapport with the broad, bold character of the C major scale went hand-in-glove with her ample use of the low c string and its dramatic resonance.

Born in Moscow in 1961, Alexander Kniazev began ‘cello studies at age six, graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in 1986. Also an organist, he then graduated from the Nizhny-Novgorod Conservatory as an organ major in 1991. A soloist and chamber musician, Kniazev has won prizes in prestigious competitions. As well as performing, he teaches at the Moscow Conservatory and gives master classes in Europe and Asia. Bach’s works have always been of supreme importance to Kniazev. His recording of the complete Bach Suites for Solo ‘Cello was released in 2004 on the Warner Classics label. In his own words, “I try to find a reading of Bach’s music that must first and foremost be very animated…In no way should you attempt to make a ‘museum’ out of it.” At the Jerusalem concert, he performed Bach’s Solo ‘Cello Suite no. 5 in c minor, the only of the suites for which a Bach autograph exists. The work calls for the top string of the ‘cello to be lowered from an “a” to a “g” (scordatura), strengthening the c minor chord overtones. Using plenty of vibrato, Kniazev set the scene for the work with an intense, brooding reading of the mammoth Prelude, addressing its motifs and melodic lines in detail, its Allegro section lighter but still in a serious vein. The artist then brought out the large Allemande’s pensive, somewhat vulnerable character, allowing its melodic strands to dictate flexibility of pace and sound. The Courante was no romp, with Kniazev laying emphasis on its irregular shapes and voice-play. His playing of the Sarabande was probing and deeply emotional, its single line of wrenching leaps and tensions brimming with sadness and pain, down to the movement’s final, hushed pianississimo utterance. Not rushed, the two Gavottes breathed delicate and dancelike naïveté, their voices engaged in conversation. Kniazev paced the Gigue with care, the soul-searching aura of the c minor scale preserved right up to the work’s concluding notes. Alexander Kniazev plays on a distinctively mellow ‘cello that belongs to the Russian State Collection. An instrument played by Piatigorsky, its pedigree reads “Bergonzi, Cremona 1733. Curiously enough, no ‘cellos are known to have been made by Bergonzi. In the 19th century, many ‘cellos produced by the Venetian instrument builder Matteo Goffriller were attributed to Bergonzi. This may be the case here.

Here was a profoundly thought-provoking program in which each artist gave the audience a glimpse into his/her engagement with Bach’s most personal ‘cello music, each holding discourse in a language beyond words.