Sunday, January 8, 2017

Chen Zimbalista and the Music Factory - Gala Benefit Concert in Jerusalem

Chen Zimbalista (photo: Eli Katz)

Two outstanding organizations were represented at the gala benefit concert for the Yad Elie Foundation, which took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on January 1st, 2016.  The musical program was provided by Chen Zimbalista and the Music Factory.

Yad Eli, established by Marion Kunstenaar in 2002 in memory of Elie Saghroun, provides meals for needy Jerusalem school children, feeding 500 Arab- and Jewish children on a daily basis. It sets up educational programs to teach children about nutrition and health, creating a forum where Jewish and Arab participants can think, work and benefit from each other. Rabbi David Lilienthal serves as chairman of Yad Elie.

Directed by world-renowned marimba player and percussionist Chen Zimbalista, the Jewish-Arab youth orchestra – the Music Factory – was established four years ago. For the Jerusalem concert, it was joined by members of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Beer Sheva Sinfonietta and mezzo-soprano Noa Hope. The concert was preceded by the three-day Music in Omer Festival, consisting of open rehearsals, master classes and concerts. Taking place at the Open Museum in the Industrial Park of the southern town of Omer, this was the second of its kind involving the Music Factory and run by the charismatic Zimbalista. With the high standards of performance and nurturing of Zimbalista, an educator and social activist for bringing together children and youth from city and periphery in high-quality music-making, the 12- to 18-year-olds attending the festival were instructed by renowned teachers, who then joined them to play together in the youth orchestra.

The program included finely-crafted orchestral playing of movements from cardinal works of symphonic repertoire and some chamber pieces, these punctuated by Zimbalista’s dashing, stylish and virtuosic marimba playing. For the performance of works of J.S.Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Bizet, Ravel and Piazzolla, the role of concertmaster alternated between some of the orchestra’s outstanding teen violinists. Introducing Ravel’s “Bolero”, Zimbalista explained that the composer had written it as an exercise for orchestra. With Zimbalista on drum, the players gave a beguiling reading of Evgeny Levitas’ shortened version of the “Bolero”; among the fine small solos, a very young boy - Negev Almog - gave a richly sonorous and most impressive performance of the flute solo.

Of the chamber works on the program, we heard ‘cellists (and Music Factory tutors) Adiel Schmidt and Erich Oskar Huetter (Austria) in some delicate, imaginative and subtle playing of two movements from a Telemann work. Another enjoyable item was the playing of an arrangement of the subject and three of the variations from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” elegantly presented by Asher Belchman (violin), Lara Karpalov (viola) and E.O. Huetter (‘cello). (Huetter, having visited Israel several times, has been involved in similar music projects with Arab youth.)

Contending easily and naturally with the orchestra, guest artist mezzo-soprano Noa Hope took players and audience to the world of opera with “Voi che sapete” (You who know what love is) from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, her creamy, substantial voice well integrated with her communicative stage performance. Hope’s dramatic and colourful rendition of the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen” displayed her dynamic range, well supported by the competence, accuracy and fine listening skills of the Music Factory players.

The festive concert concluded with two works of tango composer Astor Piazzolla, a rich and soundscape of captivating Argentinean rhythms, yearning and joy. Adding to the nostalgic yet life-affirming atmosphere of this music, young accordionist Uri Ofek, relaxed and smiling, wandering across the stage in front of the orchestra, had the audience enthralled by his competence and professionalism.

Throughout the evening, Chen Zimbalista introduced the evening’s artists and works with cheerful informality. Conducting, performing with them and soloing, he directed both young- and experienced players in a vibrant program of outstanding orchestral playing, promoting the harmony of co-existence.  





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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Emer Buckley and Jochewed Schwarz record chamber works of François Couperin on two harpsichords

Yochewed Schwarz, Emer Buckley (DuoChord Pictures)
Two discs titled “François Couperin - Les Nations, Sonates et Suites de Symphonies en trio and Other Pieces for Two Harpsichords”, recorded by Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley are now available to French Baroque music aficionados. Recorded in 2013 at the von Nagel Harpsichord Workshop (Paris) for the Toccata Classics label, the discs offer the listener the chance to hear some of Couperin’s major chamber works played on two harpsichords. No contrived concept, in the preface to the published edition of his  “Apothéose” Trio Sonata (1725, dedicated to Lully’s memory), originally scored typically for two melodic instruments plus bowed string and keyboard continuo, Couperin writes that this work and his intended complete collection of trios can be played on two harpsichords, as he does with family and students; his informal introduction offers some tips as to performing the works on two harpsichords, also suggesting that this is a more convenient means of playing them than bringing together “four working musicians”.

The more substantial works presented on the discs are the four ordres (suites) making up Couperin’s vast and ground-breaking project of “Les Nations”, each suite constituting a combination of a virtuosic Italianate trio sonata da chiesa (sonade) followed by a large-scale and elaborate French suite of dances. Representing Couperin’s paradigm of “les goûts réunis” (union of tastes), “Les Nations” was published in 1726, although three of the trio sonatas were composed in the 1690s. Each of the four ordres celebrates a Catholic power of Europe – France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont.  On publishing “Les Nations”, Couperin confessed to being “charmed by the sonatas of Signor Corelli and by the French works of M. de Lulli, both of whose compositions I shall love as long as I live”. This being the background to the ordres, Schwarz and Buckley’s performance of them does not endeavour to layer them with extra-musical conjectures – political, sociological or otherwise. In their playing of the opening movements of each, Schwarz and Buckley present the flamboyance, fast mood changes, piquant dissonances, contrasts and forthright character of Italian music and with some lively, gregarious ornamenting. Moving into the French agenda of each ordre, the artists then offer sympathetic- and indeed pleasingly stylistic readings of the dances, also rich in agréments. With Schwarz and Buckley’s absolute precision and superb synchronization never sounding pedestrian, they display the noble elegance of this courtly music in playing that is fresh and vigorous, exposing the music’s interest, rhetoric and rhythmic ideas.

The disc also includes selected pieces from Couperin’s “Pièces de Clavecin” and “Concerts Royaux”, most of which were also written as trio compositions.  From Book 2 (1717) of the “Pièces de Clavecin”, the artists perform “Les Barricades mystérieuses”, the rondeau’s mesmerizing, otherworldly sound wrought of an intriguingly dovetailed contrapuntal texture. Then to the robust “Allemande à deux Clavecins”. From Book 3 of the “Pièces de Clavecin” (1722) the CD includes “La Létiville” and two robust, solidly-anchored musettes - the “Muséte de Choisi” and “Muséte de Taverni” – their drones referring to early folk music and instruments.

Organist of the Royal Chapel, François Couperin composed his “Concerts Royaux” (Royal Concerts), published in 1722, “for the little chamber concerts where Louis XIV bade me come nearly every Sunday of the year.” Buckley and Schwarz offer stylish performances of some of its delightful miniatures, calling attention to their opulence, their sense of joy and wit. In the Forlane Rondeau (4th Concert), the artists highlight the variety and contrasts made possible by the rondo form. The splendid pieces of the “Concerts Royaux” must surely have provided the aging Bourbon monarch with pleasurable entertainment; to today’s listener, they represent French Baroque chamber music at its best.

Corresponding to the candid, full touch of both artists, the sound quality of the two CDs is true and engaging, offering the listener a lively listening experience. Written by both players, the liner notes accompanying both CDs are highly informative both musically and biographically. Basing their information on what Couperin himself wrote, the artists have made a deep enquiry into the works and into the question of playing them on two harpsichords rather than in a mixed consort. Schwarz and Buckley write: “This challenge is one which faces all harpsichordists and, throughout the preparation of our recording, it has been a constant inspiration to us to imagine Couperin playing the music in his own home, surrounded by family, friends and pupils.

Emer Buckley was born in Dublin, Jochewed Schwarz in Tel Aviv. Both discovered the harpsichord during their university studies – Emer Buckley at University College, Dublin, and Jochewed Schwarz at the Music Academy, Tel Aviv University. Emer continued her studies in France and Italy, then moving to France to begin a career as a soloist and continuo player. She also teaches harpsichord and the art of continuo at the Conservatoire de Lille. Jochewed Schwarz studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and in Paris, then returning to Israel, where she lives today performing, directing and producing concerts. The two artists met at the von Nagel Harpsichord Workshop in Paris and, despite living in different countries, they take every opportunity of making music together. 





Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ensemble Divina Insania hosts violinist Shunske Sato at a concert at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Sunske Sato (photo: Yat Ho Tsang)

On December 26th, the Hebrew University’s weekly Monday Afternoon Concert Series featured Ensemble Divina Insania, a Baroque chamber music group consisting of Israeli musicians living in Europe or in Israel and performing on period instruments. Guest artist was violinist Shunske Sato (Japan/Holland). Joining him were Doret Florentin (recorder), Tali Goldberg (violin) Benny Aghassi (bassoon, Hen Goldsobel (contrabass) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord). The Monday Afternoon Series series is directed and introduced by Dr. Sara Pavlov.

The concert opened with all players in an eloquent reading of the Overture to G.F.Händel’s  opera “Giustino” (Justin), which was premiered at Covent Garden in 1737, its formal, homophonic opening evocative of the pomp of the coronation ceremony with which the plot begins. The allegro section offered some charming duets. Händel had a splendid oboist/recorder player in his orchestra, hence the challenging soprano recorder part, managed well by Florentin.

Then to Neapolitan composer Francesco Mancini’s (1672-1737) Recorder Concerto in A-minor, one of 12 of his appearing in a collection of concertos by Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Sarro, Francesco Barbella, Giovanni Batista Mele and Roberto Valentini (the English Robert Valentine) in a Naples conservatory. Enjoying a solid and vibrant basso continuo section, with Hen Goldobel's beautifully shaped lines proving that the continuo role can be of constant interest, the ensemble’s reading of the piece, with much lively interaction between Florentin and Sato, was alive and spontaneous, its textures alternating between utterances of only violins and recorder and tutti moments, with some silver-tongued harpsichord spreads adding sparkle to calmer moments. Rich in well-crafted melodies and a sprinkling of surprises, the work, indeed demanding to play, made for fine entertainment. Primarily an opera composer, the list of Mancini’s instrumental works is small. Divina Insania’s colourful performance of the concerto emphasized how unjust it is that this leading figure of Naples’ cultural life and education (he was a rival to Alessandro Scarlatti) should have fallen into oblivion.

Of his more than 550 concertos, Antonio Vivaldi composed 39 bassoon concertos, for whom we can only guess, and the plot thickens if one considers that the bassoon had not yet been used as a solo instrument in Venice. It is thought that these Vivaldi concertos were written between 1728 and 1737. Vivaldi, though not a bassoonist, shows a thorough understanding of the instrument’s expressive and technical possibilities, taking the player on a journey through the bass and tenor registers, however, also through the concept of a string-player, with demanding arpeggios, rapid scales and register leaps. Benny Aghassi had listeners perched at the edge of their seats right from the first notes of the work’s wild unison opening, as he scurried up and down the bassoon range with articulate agility, warmth of timbre and pizzazz, with the violins adding comments and accents to complete the joie-de-vivre of the outer movements. In the Largo movement, with the bassoon’s languorous agenda set against held chords in the strings, Aghassi created small pauses between sections, as if each time searching anew for suitable inspiration for each gesture.  Throughout the work, he communicated closely with his fellow players and with the audience. Benny Aghassi’s virtuosity and musicality left the listener wishing for more!

Performing Vivaldi’s Concerto for Recorder, Violin and Bassoon in D-major RV92, Florentin, Sato and Aghassi interacted vigilantly, the opening Allegro giving each artist much to say, as Sato signed out of it, tugging a little at the heart strings as he leaned into a dissonant penultimate note. Following the second movement, in which Florentin and Sato engaged in a moving dialogue, with Aghassi weaving long lines of gently inégal notes throughout, the artists’ technical command was displayed in the final, somewhat witty, abundantly imitative Allegro movement.

Most of us had no idea of what was in store when Shunske Sato and Yizhar Karshon launched into little-known Italian composer Giovanni Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D-minor opus 4 No.4 “La Biancuccia”. The opus 4 violin sonatas were published in 1660. Here was a vivid example of the “stylus phantasticus”, referred to in 1650 by Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher as being “especially suited to instruments…the most free and unrestrained method of composition…bound neither to any words or to a melodic subject… instituted to display genius and teach the hidden design of harmony…”. In this highly representative piece of the style, bristling with unpredictability and acrobatics, the artists juxtaposed its extreme moods in a continuum of sections expressing frenzy and lyricism (even moderation), coloured with accelerandi and audacious harmonic changes, rumbling harpsichord textures and the profuse ornamentation that emanated from under Sato’s fingers as he quizzically eyed the mesmerized audience. Karshon was with Sato all the way, as they introduced the audience to an uninhibited and totally delectable 17th century musical version of a Hitchcock movie. A musician at the court of Ferdinand Charles, Archduke of Austria, Pandolfi Mealli dedicated this sonata to a castrato.  In 1669, when a violinist in the Messina Cathedral, he fled Sicily after murdering a castrato singer, then working as a violinist in the Capilla Real of Madrid. Who said music history was boring?

Appropriately timed (December 26th) the last work on the program was Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto in G-minor Opus 6 No.8, with the Divina Insania artists lending supple and graceful expression to its lush, melodic beauty and undulating suspensions, its tempo contrasts and its dance movements, ending with the wonderful lilting pastoral movement, with its folk-like tunes, bagpipe drone effect and sense of wonder.

This was an opportunity to appreciate the outstanding musicianship of all six artists and in a room the appropriate size for hearing and seeing each musical process. It was Shunske Sato’s first Israeli visit. Let's hear more of him here!


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Opera Aeterna celebrates 13 years of productions at Jerusalem's Khan Theatre

Dmitry Semionov and Julia Plakhin (photo: Daniel Zaman)
Opera Aeterna was established in 2003 in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Musica Aeterna choir. Both ensembles are directed by Maestro Ilya Plotkin. Opera Aeterna has produced 11 fully-staged operas, with fine singers, actors, orchestras, stage sets and wonderful costumes. Most of Aeterna’s singers are immigrants from the former Soviet Union; they bring with them the highest standard of professional opera training and stage experience. Adding a valuable dimension to Jerusalem’s music scene, each annual Opera Aeterna production has proved to be a high-quality and festive event. One characteristic of all performances has been the addition of a Hebrew-speaking narrator on stage, somewhat involved in the action, but there to keep the audience informed of the details of each opera plot.

Celebrating 13 years of Opera Aeterna at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre on December 19th 2016, Maestro Plotkin and his devoted team decided to present arias and scenes from all past performances, with a glimpse into the future production. The event took the form of a set of auditions, with actor Michael Gorodin (Micro Theatre) in the role of an opera director faced with the dilemma of sending an opera production to Italy within a week. In addition to conducting the singers and instrumental ensemble on stage, Ilya Plotkin was also busy observing each artist taking the “auditions” and collaborating with Gorodin in the selection task. First on stage was seasoned Aeterna singer Shirelle Dashevsky in an aria from Mozart’s comic Singspiel “The Impresario”, Opera Aeterna’s first production, her stage charm and easeful coloratura evident throughout the evening. From Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love”, we heard tenor Dmitry Semionov duetting with Galina Zifferblat, their musical dialogue spelling out the tangles of love gone wrong. In an excerpt from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Julia Plakhin, all sweetness and naivete, was partnered in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with bass Dmitry Lovzov, a singer for whom comic performance is second nature.

A significant milestone in Opera Aeterna’s history was the company’s world premiere performance of Aldo Finzi’s opera (libretto: Carlo Veneziani) “Serenata al Vento” (Serenade to the Wind) at the 2012 Bergamo Music Festival. The auspicious event was represented here by engagingly performed arias from the opera sung by Shirelle Dashevsky and Dmitry Semionov. For me, one of the evening’s highlights was presentation Semionov and Zifferblat’s empathic rendering of a duet from Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, also a reminder of some of Aeterna Opera’s most delightful costumes.

And there was plenty of jocular and farcical performance, as in Irina Mindlin’s flirtatious, free, entertaining and theatrical presentation of an aria from Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta “Countess Maritza”, and then a reminder of Ilya Plotkin’s daring simultaneous double-staging of both Paisiello- and Pergolesi’s settings of “La serva padrona” (The Servant Mistress) in 2008, with the spite and bickering of old Uberto and his manipulative servant Serpina (in the Pergolesi setting) performed with pep by Andrei Trifonov and Julia Plakhin.

And to the preview of Opera Aeterna’s future production, we heard Plakhin with Trifonov and Dashevsky with Semionov in duets from “Luisa Fernanda”, a zarzuela (a Spanish light opera) by Federico Moreno Torroba, a production promising next year’s audience a good mix of drama, romance, good music and beautiful Spanish-style costumes.

Under Maestro Plotkin’s baton, string players and keyboardists (Natalie Rotenberg, Uri Brener) offered colourful and well-coordinated accompaniments. Not to be forgotten are those dedicated people behind the scenes and those designing and producing stage set and costumes. The festive event concluded with all the singers on stage in a performance of an ensemble from “The Impresario”, sending the audience home with a hearty reminder of how Opera Aeterna began.

Andrei Trifinov,Irina Mindlin, Shirelle Dashevsky (photo: Daniel Zaman)


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Jerusalem Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI present an evening commemorating 700 years of the death of Ramon Llull

Ramon Lllull (

On December 14th 2016, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Ramon Llull Institute hosted Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI in “Ramon Llull, Times of Conquest, Dialogue and Distress”. The festive musical event took place in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA.

Celebrated Catalan musician Jordi Savall (b.1941, Igualada, Spain) is seen as a major driving force behind the revival of early music from Europe, the New World and the Mediterranean. He constitutes a point of reference in the study, performance, conducting and the restoring of many musical traditions and in a wide-ranging intercultural dialogue that transcends all borders. Jordi Savall established Hespèrion XX in Basel in 1974, changing its name to Hespèrion XXI in 2000. “Hespèrion”, from the classical Greek, refers to the people of the Italian- and Iberian Peninsulas. The international ensemble is known for its focus on scholarship of Spanish music of the 16th and 17th centuries, for its historically informed use of improvisation around basic melodic- and rhythmic structures and its emotional intimacy and immediacy. One of the key members of Hespèrion was Savall’s late wife, the eminent singer Montserrat Figueras.

As part of the commemorative celebrations worldwide surrounding the 700th anniversary of Ramon Llull’s death, Jordi Savall created a new musical project focused on this literary and historical figure. Ramon Llull (1232-1316) is the most universally-recognized Catalan thinker and one of the most important writers of the Middle Ages. The concert mapped the major events of Llull’s life with readings from Llull’s most important writings, interspersed with musical pieces, in themselves, a musical voyage capturing the beauty and emotion defining the music of Ramon Llull’s time.

Founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Maestro David Shemer opened the evening with words of welcome to all and thanks to the Spanish ambassador to Israel Mr. Fernando Carderera, who was present at the event. David Shemer spoke of the fact that Ramon Llull possibly journeyed to Jerusalem, having considered it an important cultural place, this being the reason for holding the Hespèrion XXI concert in Jerusalem.

The program opens with the outstanding flautist and bagpiper Pierre Hamon entering the hall from the back; he is playing a double flute, to be joined by David Mayoral on drum, introducing an excerpt from Llull’s writings:

‘Music is the means whereby we are taught to sing and play instruments correctly, fast and slow, high and low, harmonizing the notes and voices so that there can be a concord of voices and sounds…’  Doctrina pueril, LXXIIII

The narrative, read in Spanish by Silvia Bel and Jordi Boixaderas, begins with 1229, when James I conquered Majorca, proceeding to Ramon Llull’s birth in Majorca, his marriage, his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and other holy places, learning Arabic from his Moorish slave and Llull’s first works: “The Logic of Al-Ghazali” and “The Book of Contemplation”. In 1283, Llull writes “The Book of the Lover and the Beloved”, in 1290 going to teach in monasteries in Italy and taking his first journey to North Africa in 1293, spending time in Tunis. Llull arrives in Rome in 1295, addressing a petition to Pope Boniface VIII, writing “Disconsolation” and “The Tree of Science”. On his second visit to France in 1297, Llull dedicates his “Tree of the Philosophy of Love” to King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre. In 1299, in Barcelona, James II of Aragon grants him permission to preach in all the synagogues and mosques of his domain. In 1302, Llull travels to Cyprus, Armenia Minor and possibly to Jerusalem. In 1307, again in North Africa, he is imprisoned in Béjaïa (Algeria) for six months. Following his expulsion from there, a ship he is on capsizes near Pisa. He survives. Following his last journey to Paris in 1309, he attends the Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. In 1313, at age 81, he makes his will, embarking on his third mission to North Africa in 1314, dedicating works to the Sultan and requesting James of Aragon to find him a Franciscan to translate his works into Latin. Ramon Llull dies in 1316 at age 84.

Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI, with its international line-up of artists from east and west - from Spain, Turkey, Italy, France, Israel and other countries - is the ideal ensemble to accompany Ramon Llull’s story, to reflect on the literary and historical figure’s cosmopolitanism and his acquaintance with all three monotheistic religions and cultures. It was Jordi Savall who initiated the concept of the program, accompanying its development and selecting the music to be performed; historical- and literary research was carried out by Manuel Forcano and Sergi Grau.

Under the watchful eye of Jordi Savall, playing viola d’arc or the rebab, the pieces punctuating the narrative were mostly monodic, from as far back as the 11th century - instrumental or vocal-instrumental pieces, European or oriental, sacred or secular. Performed by consummate musician soprano VivaBiancaLuna Biffi (also the consort vielle player), the very sonorous baritone Furio Zanasi and instruments, we heard, for example, “Veri dulcis in tempore” (anonymous, Codex of 1010):

‘In the springtime sweet,
Juliana and her sister stand
Beneath a flowering tree.
Sweet love! Wretched is she
Who in this season lacks your company …’

Or the outspoken song of love and despair “Si ai perdut mon saber” (So addled are my senses) by Ponç d’Ortafa (1170-1246), sung by Zanasi in a richly evocative manner. Representative of early Spanish sacred songs was “Santa Maria, strela do dia” (Holy Mary, Star of the Day), one of the 420 Cantigas de Santa Maria, written during the reign of Alfonso X the Wise (1221-1284) and often attributed to him.  Presenting Arabic vocal music, guest artist to the ensemble Lubna Bassal’s performance, together with traditional hand movements, was authentic, emotional and powerful. Another guest artist at the Hespèrion XXI concert was Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh, one of today’s most experienced interpreters of Jewish Andalusian song. Following a meditative opening played on oud by renowned Israeli Yair Dalal, Elmaleh gave a moving performance of Spanish Jewish poet Judah Halevi’s “Beautiful Land, Delight of the World”, its sense of yearning reinforced by delicate playing of percussion, ney and viol.

The several instrumental pieces included early dance music, such as the jolly 14th century Istanpitta: “Belicha” (Hamon-flute, Mayoral-percussion), a colourful performance of the Ottoman “Güresh” dance and a mysterious-sounding interpretation of the anonymous Berber “Dance of the Wind” (ney and drum). One of the program highlights was guest musician ney artist (the ney is an end-blown flute that features prominently in Middle Eastern music) Usama Abu Ali’s performance of a Sufi dance, together with percussion. With his superb control of circular breathing, Abu Ali’s playing was virtuosic, intense and thrilling. Contributing to the elegance and allure of the ensemble were Angelique Mauillon-medieval harp, Turkish artist Hakan Güngör’s exemplary playing of the qanun, Mayoral’s creative use of percussion and Savall’s touching, nostalgic bowed melodies.

In the spiritual chant – “Torah, Ghazali-Durme-Apo xeno meros” – sung by each of the singers to an almost identical melody, Jordi Savall makes a statement: that all sang the same music in Mediterranean countries but that each community has since claimed it as its own. With all the singers joining in the music of different ethnic groups, Savall’s message of all people belonging to the same human race came through clearly in performance that was informed, sensitive and polished.




Sunday, December 18, 2016

December 2016 - Amir Katz performs Bach, Schubert and Liszt at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv

Photo: Robert Recker

Amir Katz (b. Israel 1975), today residing in Berlin, has recently been in Israel to give two recitals at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv. This writer attended the event on December 10th 2016.

The artist opened the program with J.S.Bach’s Partita No.2 in C-minor BWV 826, one of the six Bach wrote between 1726 and 1730, eventually grouped into a collection he titled “Clavier-Übung” (Keyboard Practice), not just pedagogical material for his sons but also a tribute to Johann Kuhnau, his predecessor at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, who had given the same title to a work in 1689. In suites comprising 16th century courtly dance forms with the addition of non-dance movements (those referred to by Bach as “galanteries”), Bach takes liberties to depart from the traditional Baroque suite, with Partita No.2 concluding with a capriccio in place of the traditional gigue. In one of Bach’s most dramatic partita moments, Katz’ dramatic presentation of the opening Grave adagio sinfonia is a wake-up call to the composer’s daring and gregarious use of dissonance, Katz followed it directly with his serene reading of the Andante, in which he pauses to highlight key notes before launching energetically into the fugue to celebrate the beauty of the two-voiced writing pervading much of the Partita. Relating to the unspeakable beauty and delicacy of the Allemande, Katz subtly weaves its dovetailing melodic lines into harmonic interest. Then to the energy of the French-style Courante – gripping, intense, embellished and satisfying – in which the artist allows every strand to speak, its vitality suddenly a past memory as Katz takes the listener via his own profound sensibilité into the inner world of the Sarabande, his tranquil pace allowing the movement’s fragile, intimate course to unfold. The immediacy, vigour and rich scoring of the Rondeaux take over, the quirky seventh leaps there to tease and entertain, with the  Capriccio, ending the work with its tenth leaps and runs, turning into a complex three-voiced fugue. Amir Katz’ articulate playing supports the argument for playing Bach on the modern piano and even with economic use of the sustaining pedal, which he does with great skill, never blurring a gesture.

Of late, Amir Katz has been performing and recording much Romantic music. His recital proceeded with Franz Schubert’s Impromptus opus 90, D.899, written in 1827, a year before the composer’s premature death. The four pieces were given the title of Impromptu by publisher Tobias Haslinger, who was hoping to cash in on the amateur market and the fashion for pieces of this kind, such as those by Bohemian composer Jan Václav Vorísek, the title suggesting improvisation, casualness and brevity. Considering their complexity and technical demands and the fact that opus 90 was composed between the two halves of the heavyweight “Winterreise”, nothing of the publisher's suppositions could be further from the truth. After holding on just that bit longer to the opening imposing, stark, empty g octave in Impromptu No.1 in C-minor, Amir Katz, delving into his palette of textures and colours, then divulges the piece’s constant contrast of decisive strength and vulnerability, of minor and major, with Schubert’s most silken and tender utterances emerging from harmonic changes arising from the lowered second of the scale. All these elements become welded into an almost seamless continuum, the coda a mere comforting major remembrance of what was. Emanating from Katz’ flawlessly agile finger-work, the flowing of triplets of the E-flat major Impromptu soar heavenwards and back down again, their apparent weightlessness taking the listener through the gamut of Schubertian tonal transformations, then to be contrasted by the serious, more earth-bound minor section, its seething inner voices reminiscent of textures of the first section. Katz winds the piece up with a confident, explicit flourish. Then to the tranquillity of the G-flat major piece, with Katz inviting the listener to follow his beautifully chiselled playing of the lyrical melody, the tireless bubbling stream of the inner voice articulate but never intrusive, with the piece’s darker moments transitory. In Impromptu No.4 in A-flat major, enigmatically opening with 30 bars in A-flat minor, Katz follows the transitions of Schubert’s soul in spiralling and starry cascading from minor to minor again via the major key, with respite never there for long. Katz’ reassuring soft-spoken left hand melody-playing, in contrast to the aching second subject melody, lends a distant voice of warmth and songfulness to the performance. Amir Katz’ recent CD “8 Impromptus” (Orfeo label) features the D899 and D935 Impromptus

In 1832, the not yet 21-year-old composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt heard the great violinist-composer Niccolo Paganini performing at the Paris Opera. Mesmerised at the violinist’s mastery and at his hypnotic powers on the audience, Liszt wrote to a friend in Geneva: “…what a man, what a violinist, what an artist...What sufferings, what misery, what torture in those four strings.”  Inspired by Paganini’s brilliance, he decided to write such violin virtuosity into a piano work, resulting in his 1838 arrangement of five of Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin and “La Campanella” (the finale of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.2), reworked in 1851 to be titled “Six Grand Etudes after Paganini” and dedicated to Clara Wieck Schumann. In the first prelude, bristling with scales and arpeggios, Liszt evokes Paganini’s imitation of two violins playing together, one in constant tremolo, with Katz imbuing the soundscape with generous use of the sustaining pedal. Beginning, as it were, in mid-phrase, the second piece presents a simple theme punctuated with sections of such techniques as chromatic sixths, scales in tenths and double octave passages. Enjoying the bell-like effects, the charm and delicacy of Katz' playing of No.3 “La Campanella” (Little Bell), one cannot ignore its fierce demands of tricky leaps, fast, repeated notes and other extraordinary piano feats. Reminding the player of its origin, No.4 is written on a single stave; Katz’ clarity of sound and careful phrasing added to its vivacity and brightness, rendering this study of arpeggios a tasty morsel. Katz addresses the familiar motifs of “La Chasse” (The Hunt) with simplicity, creating a rondo of sunny exuberance, the Six Grand Etudes concluding with Liszt’s Theme and Variations on Paganini’s Caprice No.24.  Sailing from one transformation to the next, the artist brought out the different scoring and character of each variation, from outgoing and vivacious utterance to introverted otherworldly moments, bringing the concert to an end with a work of the full-blown Romantic style and demanding great technical and musical virtuosity. Liszt’s piano works often find their way into the hands of pianists engaging in heavy, athletic performance and acrobatic show. Amir Katz steps back to look at the music, never allowing its virtuosity or his own dexterity to drown out musical transparency or the work’s own inner life and meaning.

For his encore, Amir Katz performed Liszt’s “Liebestraum” (Dream of Love) No.3 (1850), played with expressive understatement and serenity.




Saturday, December 17, 2016

J.S.Bach's Christmas Oratorio performed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Photo: J.Bauer

The first three parts of J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 were recently performed in two performances in Jerusalem and one in Bethlehem. With Gunther M. Goettsche (music director of the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem) and Erwin Meyer sharing the conducting, members of three choirs – the Choir of the Redeemer Church (Jerusalem), of the Schmidt Schule (Jerusalem) and of the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem) joined to form a large chorus. They were joined by the Belvedere Chamber Orchestra Weimar (Germany). Soloists were Heidrun Goettsche-soprano, Anne-Marieke Evers-alto, Sebastian Hübner-tenor and Samuel Lawrence Berlad-bass. This writer attended the performance at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, in which Erwin Meyer was conductor. Father Nikodemus, of the Dormition Abbey, offered words of welcome to the large audience.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was completed around Christmas in 1734. Its format is that of a cantata, with the tenor Evangelist narrating the story of the birth of Christ. All texts sung by the Evangelist are minimally accompanied in order to give the Gospel texts prominence. From Christmas Day to Epiphany in the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it with six commemorations taking place between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany. At each of those events, Bach’s congregation was presented with a single cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, recounting one of the stories, their biblical texts accompanied by reflective texts. The three first cantatas heard at the Jerusalem and Bethlehem performances feature the first three celebrating the birth of Jesus (December 25th), the shepherds’ adoration of the baby (December 27th) and the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day).

From the opening five-note phrase on the timpani, the performance at the Dormition Abbey was one of joy. Choruses, with the chorales reflecting the voice of the people, were well coordinated and articulate; the singers were attentive, their phrases shaped, full of impetus and energy, making for rewarding choral performance. Served well by his bright, rich and agreeable tenor voice, Sebastian Hübner gave the narrative spontaneity and flexibility, at times urgency and even suspense. In the virtuosic “Joyful shepherds, hurry, ah hurry”, he and the orchestra’s very excellent flautist in the obligato role communicated and embellished with alacrity. Honorary professor at the Heidelberg University of Church Music, Sebastian Hübner has a wide repertoire, has premiered new works and is a member of the Schola Heidelberg Ensemble.

There was much natural warmth and richness in the singing of German-American baritone Samuel Lawrence Berlad, standing in for bass Peter Schüler, who had taken ill. His mix of mellifluousness and dramatic flair gave colour and life to text and music, as in the dialogue with obligato trumpet in “Great Lord, O mighty king”.  An opera singer, Samuel Berlad is also a Jewish cantorial singer and voice teacher, heading the vocal department of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. Dutch-born mezzo-soprano Anne-Marieke Evers, much specialized in early music, dealt with the alto recitatives and arias with outstanding vocal presence, projecting her voice amply and with natural ease into the acoustic space of the church. In the aria “Sleep, my dearest”, she recreated this moving jewel of a lullaby in gentle, empathic yet substantial singing, as the basso continuo repeated the note g in octave leaps to depict rocking the baby. With a minimum in the way of solo soprano arias, we heard duets with tenor and bass from renowned voice teacher Heidrun Goettsche. Pronouncing the angel’s words (in effect, God’s words) “Do not fear”, the recitative accompanied by held chords in the strings, we heard one of the girls of the Schmidt School choir, her clean, fresh voice conveying the message of solemnity, succour and hope.

Members of the Belvedere Orchestra Weimar (concertmaster: Johannes Müller) are all students at the Music Gymnasium Schloss Weimar, a selective high school for talented young musicians from Germany and other countries. The orchestra was outstanding throughout the performance, its balance, intonation and obligato roles refined, sophisticated and subtle. Conductor, piano accompanist and composer Erwin Meyer, director of the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem), drew all the participants together in a collaborative performance that was pleasing and focused, with conducting that was articulate, expressive and exhilarating.  A fine mix of people from many communities attended the festive event.