Saturday, October 22, 2016

Israel Musicals premieres its production of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" in Jerusalem

On October 19th 2016 Israel Musicals premiered its production of “The Producers” at the Jerusalem Theatre. Based on a book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, the show’s music and lyrics are by Mel Brooks. The musical is actually an adaptation of the 1968 film of the same name. Since its establishment in 2007, bringing together actors, actresses, musicians, choreographers, technicians, costumers and scenery artists of all ages, outlooks and backgrounds, Israel Musicals has produced seven shows, including this latest production, performing in several locations around Israel. Director of “The Producers” is Yisrael Lutnik, with assistant director-Malka Abrahams, musical director-Haim Tukachinsky, choreography-Avichai Barlinski and stage manager-Tammy Paul.

“The Producers” tells of two New York Jewish producers who plan to get rich by overselling interests in a Broadway flop. Their plan falls flat when the show unexpectedly turns out to be a success. We are presented with a hilarious satire of the business side of Hollywood, revolving around the crude, failed producer Max Bialystock (Howard Schechter) and the wimpy, panicked and hysterical accountant-turned-producer Leo Bloom (Shai Amoyal), both well-cast and convincing. Bialystock raises money for productions by seducing cheques out of little old ladies in exchange for “hanky-panky” games. The worst show the two find for their “failure” is “Springtime for Hitler” by the moronic and crazed neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (David Kilimnik). Roger DeBris, the cross-dresser (Dale David Boccaccio Honor), accompanied by his valet Carmen Giya (Erez Kantor), is the most incompetent director they can find for the project. With propriety now thrown out the window, the musical serves up such immoral heroes, joyful fraud, greed and lust and unprincipled behaviour that we all end up joining in the fun…and that means a comedic Hitler, Nazi armbands and the sending up of gays, show business and honest business principles. Heterosexuality is represented by the flirtatious, coquettish secretary Ulla, well played by Meital Segal.

Choosing a musical based on bad taste and immorality might look audacious on the part of Israel Musicals, but the team obviously understands that Mel Brooks is a winner. His script is not only daring and gregarious, it is brilliant, keeping the audience alert, surprised and laughing. And “The Producers” offers plenty of good, foot-tapping music. Apart from the somewhat dreary stage set and a few lighting blips, the performance was very well done – hearty, fast-moving, spoken and sung with fine diction and all these with dedication. Kudos to Haim Tukachinsky for his splendid and lively musical direction of the instrumental ensemble and split-second synchronization with what was happening on stage.

What might come as a surprise to all of us is that Mel Brooks looked to himself in creating the two main characters. In his own words, “Max and Leo are me, the ego and id of my personality. Bialystock – tough, scheming, full of ideas, bluster, ambition, wounded pride. And Leo, this magical child.”  The show’s printed program mentions friendship as one of the elements of the plot. “Till Him”, sung by Max of Leo, is touching evidence of the power of friendship, perhaps also of Brooks’ acceptance of the two contrasting sides of his own personality. On its site, Israel Musicals talks of its “sacred sense of duty to spread joy and happiness to audiences across Israel”. In my opinion, this theatre company has done just that!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The world premiere of Peter Gary's "A 20th Century Passion" October 17th 2016 in Jerusalem

Dr. Peter Gary (photo: Judy Estrin)

On October 17th 2016, A. Peter Gary’s “A 20th Century Passion” was premiered in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. Peter Gary (Grünberg) was born in 1924 to an upper middle class Budapest family. Musically gifted, he studied with Zoltán Kodály and Leo Weiner, taking master classes with Béla Bartók. In 1941, he and his mother were taken to the Hungarian-Polish border to be gunned down. His mother was killed protecting him. Peter Gary was one of four people to crawl out of the pit alive. He was interned in the Majdanek, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen death camps, surviving long enough to be freed by the British Army on his 21st birthday. He then went on to continue his music studies, receiving a Ph.D. in Musicology from the Sorbonne University. Dr. Gary immigrated to the USA in 1950, working in the Hollywood film industry, teaching as guest professor in the University of California and composing. He also studied rehabilitation medicine and worked in that field. In 1991, Gary immigrated to Victoria, BC., where he continued composing and worked untiringly with young people to spread the message of tolerance and compassion, telling thousands of pupils of his survival of the Holocaust. “A 20th Century Passion”, dedicated by the composer to children who perished in the Holocaust,  was composed over more than three years in the 1970s, then remaining unperformed. At the initiative of his wife, Judy Estrin, it was premiered on October 17th 2016 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater. Sadly, the composer passed away a month prior to the premiere, on September 18th, never to hear his largest-scale work performed.

Scored for two choirs, orchestra, five vocal soloists and two narrators, most of the work’s verbal text was written by the composer himself, with some texts written by children who perished in the Holocaust. Conductor Barak Tal, musical director of the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, travelled to Canada to meet with the composer in the summer of 2015, worked with him on the piece and decided to undertake direction of the premiere. Under Maestro Barak Tal’s baton, the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director: Yuval Benozer) were joined by sopranos Ayelet Cohen and Masha Shapiro, mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon, tenor Moshe Haas, baritone Yair Polishook and narrators Zohar Sadan and Naomi Shalev.

The oratorio is chronological, starting out at the end of World War I, following the rise of Nazi power and concluding with the Nuremberg Trial. Recital of the “Kaddish” (mourners’ payer) is threaded through the opening Overture. From there the work proceeds in solos, duets and choral sections, the texts for most having been written by the composer. In certain of the more naïve sections, such as “The Butterfly”, Naomi Shalev’s sweetly childlike speaking of the text was echoed in pure, wistful and young sounds by soprano Masha Shapiro:

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone...

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished
to kiss the world goodbye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
In the ghetto.     (Pavel Friedman, 1921-1944)

Mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon’s solos were articulate, her singing rich and refined; her somewhat distant singing of horrific descriptions, however, needed more vehemence and emotion. Tenor Moshe Haas was impressive in his recounting of the Holocaust story, his fine-timbred tenor voice fraught with anguish and a sense of hopelessness. Baritone Yair Polishook’s performance was powerful both vocally and emotionally, no tender or dramatic gesture unaddressed. A singer with a well-rounded, large voice and fine vocal control, Ayelet Cohen’s performance was gripping, as in “You’ll live, my child”, a text set to the melody of a Hungarian children’s song, reflecting a mother’s heartbreak at losing a child.  As per usual, the high-quality, musical and competent singing of members of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble gave due weight to both texts and music, with Maestro Barak Tal’s direction drawing all threads together with musical assuredness and dedication.

Peter Gary’s score, skilfully handled by players of the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, is a succinct, tasteful soundscape of contemporary writing, sound orchestration, notable writing for piano and voices and plenty of variety of ideas. In Peter Gary’s own words: “We composers are a strange lot. Our creative art is the most abstract form of all other creativity. The most important factor in all of the arts is the need to express something by the artist. I hope I have done this, almost forty years ago. I feel I did owe it for surviving the Holocaust and giving the world an avenue to remember it.” In the work’s Finale, the singing of four male singers, representing judges at the Nuremberg Trials, is broken into by the choir entering pianissimo and rising to fortissimo, with the shouting of the quartet over the choir and orchestra indicative of Gary’s scepticism as to “This cannot happen again”. The concert, broadcast live to listeners in Canada, was dedicated to Peter Gary’s memory.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Michael Tsalka's recording of solo works of Ferdinand Ries on fortepiano

Michael Tsalka (photo: David Beecroft)

With today’s rising interest in music of the transitionary period between Viennese Classicism and Romanticism, the name of Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) comes to the fore and not just in the capacity of his job as Beethoven’s secretary, copyist, transcriber, arranger and proof-reader.  It is true that Ries’ father sent him to Vienna, where Beethoven took him under his wing, teaching him the piano, with Ries, in turn, helping Beethoven with the technicalities of composing, publishing and finding living quarters (it was he who found Beethoven the lodgings in the Pasqualati House, now housing the Beethoven museum), assisting him more as his hearing failed. Ries came from a long line of Bonn musicians employed at the court of the Elector of Cologne in Bonn, he himself becoming a fine performing pianist and prolific composer. He was also a renowned interpreter of Beethoven’s music; together with Franz Wegeler he published a collection of reminiscences of Beethoven in 1838. Not a church musician, Ferdinand Ries’ oeuvre covers all other genres written at the time.

A performer on historic keyboard instruments and the modern piano, Michael Tsalka has chosen to record “Romantic Variations, Fantasies and a Rondo” of Ferdinand Reis on fortepiano…actually on three different fortepianos. Most of the pieces appearing on the CD were written between 1713 and 1824, successful years Ries spent in London performing on the newly fashionable square pianos in the parlours of London’s middle class, also teaching, writing and publishing works suited to these salons.  Ries’ prominence in London was due to the help of another Bonn musician - violinist, conductor and composer Johann Peter Salomon, who had moved to London in the early 1780s and who used his connections with the aristocracy there to arrange concerts for Ries.

In the liner notes (Michael Tsalka, Angélica Minero Escobar) Tsalka alludes to the purpose of his recording as adding “another dimension to the figure of Ries both as a prolific composer and piano virtuoso”. The works he chose to perform also attest to the composer’s cosmopolitanism. Although composed in London, Variations in F major on a Beloved French Song “La Sentinelle”, opus 105 no.1 are a reminder that Ries had spent two (productive but unhappy) years in Paris. Not only did Tsalka’s playing of this piece bring out its richly appealing Classical pianistic style, textures and fine craftsmanship, it also directed whimsical reference to the self-importance of the lowly soldier on sentry duty: the original subject is reintroduced here and there throughout the variations. Also from opus 105, we heard Variations in C major on a Favourite Scotch Air "The Old Highland Laddie”, its familiar folk melody, with its Scotch snap and unpretentious play of major and minor, moving into the finesse and diversity offered by the Classical piano variation style; Michael Tsalka’s playing of it was fresh and spontaneous. Ries left Bonn for Russia in 1811, where he gave concerts with his former teacher Bernhard Romberg. (The tour was cut short when Napoleon’s army marched into Moscow.) In preparation for the Russian tour, Ries composed the Variations in A minor on a Cossack Song opus 40 no.1 (Marburg, 1810). This outstanding, small but challenging work, based on a humble but endearing Russian folk tune, is indicative of the breadth of Ries’ musical fantasy. Michael Tsalka’s articulate and engrossing playing of it took on board the piece’s many swift changes of temperament, its drama, its moments of weightlessness, of wistfulness, its elegance and velvety songfulness. I would imagine this might have been one of the works considered too difficult by London amateur keyboard players.      

In the fantasy titled “The Dream” opus 49 (London 1813), Tsalka takes the listener into a heavier work, one of emotional content suggestive of a narrative, its multi-sectional musical agenda of one idea seamlessly flowing into the next a clear precursor of the Romantic fantasy. The pianist chose the silver-tongued tone of the Conrad Graf instrument (c.1824) to create a convincing reading of the piece’s gamut of moods, its mystery, its searching and drama. Tsalka   chose the same instrument for his performance of the programmatic Fantasy in A flat on Schiller’s poem “Resignation” opus 109 (Clapham, 1821). A work at times calling to mind Schubert’s piano music, Tsalka probed the psychological drama depicted here in an almost seamless and indeed unpredictable volley of different and contrasting phrases, gestures, timbres and pianistic effects.

According to its opus number – 184 – the Introduction and Rondo in E flat major “à la Zingaresco” was probably written in Frankfurt am Main, where Ries lived from 1827 to his death )1838(. Frankfurt was a town of wealth and culture and the Ries family’s music room was a meeting place for musicians and music aficionados.  Tsalka’s spirited and gregarious reading of the Introduction and Rondo is hearty and entertaining. Who knows if Ferdinand Ries did not play it for the Frankfurt intelligentsia in his own musical salon!

Recorded at the Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA in August 2014 for the NAXOS label, all the works on this CD, except for the two fantasias, are world premiere recordings. Regarding the fortepianos he has chosen for this recording – an instrument after Johann Schantz (c.1800), one after Nanette Streicher, née Stein (c.1815) and one after Conrad Graf (c.1824), Michael Tsalka writes that he chose the three Viennese instruments “because the articulative precision of fluency of Ries’ musical style seem to correspond more closely to the clarity of their tone and their fast, responsive action and damping”. Dr. Michael Tsalka is one of the artists presently raising Ferdinand Reis’ music out of an unjustified state of obscurity. He has paid homage to the composer and his keyboard music, to the importance of music written for the musical salon and, thanks to the recording’s lively sound quality, to the beauty, the expressive possibilities and unadulterated sound world of the fortepiano.

A versatile musician, Michael Tsalka (Netherlands/Israel) maintains a busy international concert schedule and has held over eighty master classes in academic institutions on all continents. He has been artistic director of festivals in China, Sweden and Finland. Tsalka currently serves as artistic director of the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival, Amsterdam. Together with Angélica Minero Escobar, he is preparing a critical edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s thirty keyboard sonatas for Artaria Editions, New Zealand.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Concerts offering in the October 2016 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Crypt (photo: Berthold Werner)

The 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, under the direction of Hanna Tzur, will take place from October 20th to 24th 2016. Concerts will be performed at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, on the hill of Kiryat Ye’arim (appropriately called the Town of Forests), and in the 12th century Crusader Church Crypt that nestles among the mature pine trees of a magical garden in the lower area of Abu Gosh. (The historic town of Abu Gosh is located 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem.) In the words of festival director Hanna Tzur: “Twice a year the village of Abu Gosh becomes a paradise for vocal music-lovers, who come in their thousands from all over the country and turn Abu Gosh and its churches into a colourful vocal locale of festivities”.

For a pre-festival treat on a very different note, to take place on Thursday October 20th, many of the finest accordionists around will perform folk music in six locations in and around the Kiryat Ye’arim Church.

As in each Abu Gosh Festival, music-lovers will be able to hear several great works of choral repertoire – Brahms’ “German Requiem” (Concert no.2), for example, will be performed in its original form for choir, soloists and two pianos and will feature the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (Director: Stanley Sperber). In “Brilliant Baroque with Bach and Caldara from Venice” (Concert no.4) the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir (director Michael Shani) will be joined by soloists Yeela Avital, Gòn Halevi, Doron Florentin and Guy Pelc. For “Pergolesi - Stabat Mater” (Concert no.5), the program also including the Fauré “Requiem”, the Barrocade Ensemble will be joined by fine soloists and the Bat Kol and Maayan Choirs (director: Anat Morahg.) In Concert no.6, Hanna Tzur herself will conduct soloists, the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir and the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria”, also works of Verdi and Kurt Weill. The Moran Ensemble (director: Naomi Faran) and soloists will perform “Mendelssohn Gloria, Schubert Magnificat” (Concert no.7); selections from J.S.Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” can be heard in “Bach - Requiem for a Prince”, with Ron Zarhi directing soloists and instrumentalists in Concert no.9.

An auspicious event of the 2016 Fall festival will be the world premiere of Sicilian Baroque composer Michelangelo Falvetti’s oratorio “Nabuco” in its complete form (Concert no.8), performed by Ensemble PHOENIX with vocal soloists. Working with musicologist Fabrizio Longo, PHOENIX founder and director Dr. Myrna Herzog has put together the first reliable score of the work for this ground-breaking event. A renowned Baroque violinist, Fabrizio Longo will also be joined by soprano Einat Aronstein, Avid Stier (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba) in Concert no.14 in the Crypt to play works of Vivaldi, Banchieri and Vivaldi.

Regularly performing at Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festivals, members of the Meitar Opera Studio of the Israeli Opera, accompanied by studio director, arranger and pianist David Sebba, will present “Carmen in Abu Gosh” (Concert no.10), a program of opera gems, French Classical works and French chansons. Other events will also offer a mix of classical- and non-classical works: “Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Henry Purcell” (Concert no.16) with countertenor Gòn Halevi and guitarist Eyal Leber and “An Exciting Meeting Between Jazz and Classic” (Concert no.15), featuring soprano Sharon Dvorin, with guitarist Uri Bracha and bassist Oren Sagi.

Other festive fare will include a concert of music from East and West (Concert no.11), with singer, oud player and violinist Yair Dalal and sitar player Yotam Haimovich, “The Virtuosi” (Concert no.12) in which accordionist Emil Aybinder and mandolin artist Shmuel Elbaz with perform music from Armenia, Macedonia, Romania, Russia and Hungary as well as a Piazzolla work, Concert no. 1 – Mikis Theodorakis’ oratorio “Canto General”, with alto Silvia Kigel and the Kibbutz Artzi Choir conducted by Yuval Benozer; also “From the Andes to Copacabana” (Concert no.13) in which mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny will be joined by Tamar Melzer Krymolowski (flute) and guitarist Erez Yaacov.

This festival will host members of the Simvol Very Men’s Choir (Russia). Conducted by Pnina Inbar and Seraphim Dubnov (Concert no.3) they will sing works of Dvorak, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and arrangements of Russian folk songs in a joint program with the (Israeli) Naama Ensemble.

In the Abu Gosh Festival’s relaxed atmosphere, concert-goers can also enjoy informal outdoor concerts, browse the craft stalls and picnic with friends in the tranquil setting of the Judean Hills.



Friday, September 23, 2016

Members of Ensemble PHOENIX recreate the Paris salon, taking listeners to the Isle of Cythera

Tal Arbel, Marina Minkin, Myrna Herzog (photo: Eliahu Feldman)
“Journey to the Isle of Cythera” was the curious title of a house concert in Ra’anana, a small city in the central area of Israel, on September 15th 2016. Performed by PHOENIX members – founder and director Myrna Herzog and Tal Arbel (viols) and Marina Minkin (spinet) - the program consisted of French Baroque works as well a few Italian pieces. Making this event unique was seeing and hearing two beautifully crafted French pardessus viols built by Louis Guersan and Benoist Fleury and a quinton made by Nicolas Chappuy, heard in performance, in my opinion, for the first time in Israel.  We were about to take part in the experience of the musical salon. The French salon, a result of the Enlightenment of the early 18th century, acted as an extension of the royal court, providing women with an alternative to the court in order to gain status in the elite echelons, offering them a positive role in the public sphere of French society. As to the ladies’ choice of instruments, Herzog spoke of the violin (and ‘cello) as considered too vulgar for women to play in the salon. Women of the time were more likely to choose the harpsichord or the “pardessus de viole” (a sopranino viol of five or six strings, the highest pitched member of the viol family) instruments popular from the late 17th century up to around 1760. The five-string quinton, shaped like a violin, is the subject of discussion in Dr. Myrna Herzog’s article “Is the quinton a viol? A puzzle unravelled” (Early Music, 2000) in which she writes that the quinton is “a viol with a violin-like shape”. With these small instruments played mostly by women, Herzog recounts that “one of the most important [performers] was Mlle. Levi, who delighted all Paris with her performances of the ‘Concert Spirituel’ in 1745”.

J-A Watteau’s painting “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) hangs in the Louvre, Paris. It depicts lovers about to sail to the Greek island of Cythera, or are they, in fact, returning from the island in pairs? The lush oil painting, a true Rococo masterpiece of the then-new “fêtes galantes” genre that depicted courtly scenes in idyllic country settings, captures the sense of excitement and carefree prevailing in French aristocratic society of the time. With the Greek island of Cythera claiming to be the birthplace of Aphrodite (goddess of love) the above-mentioned painting, from which the PHOENIX Ensemble concert took its title, has fired the imagination of many a European artist dreaming of such an amorous escapade.

Whetting our taste for a true salon concert, the artists opened with an excerpt from Alexandre de Villeneuve’s (1677-1756) “Le Voyage de Cythère” (1727). A secular cantata for soprano and basso continuo, it features obbligato flute and violin. The composer’s introductory letter was not addressed to any royal patron but to the women who would be singing the cantata. We heard Tal Arbel on recorder, with Myrna Herzog playing the vocal line; Herzog and Arbel presented an excerpt from the text welcoming the lovers to the island, read in the original French and in a Hebrew translation. And on the subject of love, what could be more pertinent than one of François Couperin’s “Concerts Royaux”, composed for the “little chamber music concerts to which Louis XIV summoned me almost every Sunday”, in the composer’s words, and in which Couperin played the harpsichord. His Ninth Royal Concert – “Ritratto dell’Amore” evokes the various facets of love. The artists highlighted its grace, wit and elegance of court dance music in gently-swayed gestures.

Tal Arbel and Marina Minkin performed the Prelude from “Pièces de Viole” Book II, (1738) of Roland Marais (one of the celebrated Marin Marais’ 19 children), a leading viol player of the reign of Louis XV. Composed for bass viol and figured bass, Arbel’s playing focused attention on the piece’s agenda, with Minkin giving the harpsichord plenty of say. Even more daring was Jean-Baptiste Forqueray’s piece “Jupiter”, in which Arbel presented the demonic, dark gestures, the extrovert and the unpredictability of this small, unconventional work.

So why does a program of French Baroque chamber music include two sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli? Corelli’s music was known in France due to its extensive publication, its numerous editions pervading every corner of Europe, serving as models for violinists and composers. Editions were bought by people wanting to perform the music, these including the growing number of amateurs.  The Corelli trios were performed from a hand-written copy for two pardessus viols by Alexandre de Villeneuve. The Ra’anana house concert offered maximal conditions for hearing the finest details of Corelli’s Opus 3 No.2 and Opus 4 No.8 trio sonatas in this scoring and in all the text’s articulate detail, highlighting the imitative interaction between Herzog and Arbel and much elegant shaping of phrases. Neapolitan-born composer Francesco Guerini wrote a number of sonatas for two flutes, with the option of playing them on two  pardessus de viole. Herzog and Arbel played the Allegro from Duetto IV (1761), music both charming and accessible. 

Returning to French music, of the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau on the program, Marina Minkin played two solo pieces - the joyful “Les Sauvages” (inspired by two Louisiana Indians Rameau had seen performing in a Paris theatre) performed with verve and inventive ornamenting. In “L’Enharmonique” we meet Rameau the intellect and theorist in unprecedented writing for the harpsichord, in which he examines the effects of enharmonics and to where they lead, and surprising effects they were! With Minkin’s articulacy and artistic discretion, the pieces sounded especially convincing on the spinet, an instrument built for Herzog by Abel Vargas (Brazil) in 1992. Rameau’s “Musette and Tambourin” closing the evening soirée with delicacy and spirit were taken from viol virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse’s arrangements of Rameau works for two viols (and harpsichord), the viols thought to have been played by Hesse and his pupil Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia.
In his painting, “Pilgrimage to Cythera” as well as in its variation “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1718), Antoine Watteau has created an idyllic scene in which Parisian ladies and gentlemen are about to engage in a “fête galante” under the watchful eye of Aphrodite’s statue. The tiny island of Cythera does really exist northwest of Crete; it boasts beautiful landscapes – forests, waterfalls, cliffs, gorges and an incredible wealth of wildflowers. We can see pictures of the lush island on the Internet or even take an idyllic vacation there. Members of the Paris salon would have only Watteau’s paintings on which to base their imaginings. Myrna Herzog’s musical ventures bring together ideas and fine playing. Her concerts never fail to take the listener into other worlds of sound, of fantasy and of interest, revealing so much about the essence of early music, its background and the people who created it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Israel Chamber Orchestra opens its 2016-2017 season with J.S.Bach's Mass in B-minor

Maestro Ariel Zuckermann (photo: Felix Broede)
The Israel Chamber Orchestra opened its 2016-2017 season - “Colors Worth Hearing” - with J.S.Bach’s Mass in B-minor BWV 232. The work was conducted by Ariel Zuckermann, the ICO’s musical director. Soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi, alto Avital Dery, tenor Eitan Drori and bass Raimond Nolte (Germany). Joining them was the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (director: Stanley Sperber). This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 13th 2016.

Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last years of his life in Leipzig compiling parts of previously-composed works, mostly from his cantatas (the practice of “parody”) into his last great composition – the Mass in B-minor. Composed over 15 years, certain sections had been performed, but less than a year after completing it, Bach died, never to hear it performed in its entirety. Not only does the work include Bach’s study of several musical styles – coordinating style of the past and the future in the High Baroque, stile antico and the Galant style - its spiritual agenda would subtly but surely have some connection with the history of his own personal religious dilemmas as a Lutheran and his position regarding Lutheran Protestantism of his day.

With Zuckermann’s performance of the B-minor Mass, we are not talking about performance on period instruments or of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott’s one-to-a-part approach for the singing of choruses. An ambitious undertaking, the work is so universal that what is essential to any conductor taking on the challenge is to understand how perfect the piece is and how to present its detail, its fusion of styles and its meaning, which extends far beyond that of a sacred Baroque work. In my opinion, performing and hearing the B-minor Mass presents as much interest for instrumentalists as it does for singers; Zuckermann led his orchestra in playing that was secure, supportive, articulate and elegant. We heard some splendid playing from the wind sections and there were several beautifully rendered obbligato parts enriching the various arias.  The Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, boasting four strong sections, gave crystal-clear expression to fine detail, complex melodic strands and the work’s extensive use of counterpoint. At times, the choral sopranos tended to emerge a little too dominant. The fragmenting of words in the opening Kyrie, probably in the name of clarity, was somewhat baffling. In contrast to the vibrant energy of some of the more dramatic choruses, with the choir’s enunciating of consonants energizing phrases and meaning, the subtle and moving expression in such choruses as the “Qui tollis” (Gloria), the “Credo in unum Deum” (Credo) or in the colliding, tragic dissonances of the “Crucifixus” was hauntingly cushioned in lush, velvety harmonies.

Vocal solos and duets were dealt with well, if not always grippingly. Claire Meghnagi and Avital Dery’s very different styles and timbres did not make for felicitous dueting. Meghnagi and Eitan Drori found more common ground in the “Domine Deus”, with Drori and flute obbligato compatible in the “Benedictus”. Guest bass-baritone Raimond Nolte’s singing was attentive, his upper register pleasingly mellifluous. But, of all the soloists, it was alto Avital Dery who was the most engaging in her truly outstanding interpretation, her communication with the audience and her highlighting of the profound emotional content of each aria. With Maestro Zuckermann’s interest in articulacy, the most complex, multi-layered contrapuntal textures were never unintelligible under his direction. He led all in a performance that bristled with freshness, poise and luxuriance.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Israel Pianists Quartet "Octopus" hosts Taiseer Elias and Alex Ansky in a program from Bach to Avni

Bart Berman, Tavor Guchman, Yifat Zeidel, Meir Wiesel (photo: Ilan Shapira)

One of the opening events for the 2016-2017 concert season was that of the Israel Pianists Quartet “Octopus” on September 10th in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Guest artists were oud player Taiseer Elias and actor Alex Ansky.

Formed in 2013, “Octopus” consists of four pianists playing on two pianos – piano 1: Yifat Zeidel and Bart Berman, piano 2: Tavor Guchman and Meir Wiesel.  The ensemble’s aim is to promote high quality arrangements of classical works and to encourage and perform new Israeli works, having so far performed works by Josef Bardanashvili and Eran Ashkenazi. The September 10th concert included the world premiere of Tzvi Avni’s “Metamorphosis” (2016), a work for oud and four pianists.

The concert opened with Paul Klengel’s 8-hand arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No.2 in A-major opus 16. A work originally scored for winds, ‘cellos and double bass, written by the young Brahms as a work to provide him with experience in orchestral writing prior to embarking on the composition of symphonies, Klengel’s setting works incredibly well on two pianos. In a balance of restraint and finely “orchestrated” expression, the “Octopus” artists drew out the work’s innate mellowness, so Brahmsian in temperament - the darker piano timbres reminding us that the original score includes no violins. As they re-created the work’s solid, full-bodied sound world and seamless melodiousness, the work’s dance movements and its folk-like scherzo, the artists fashioned as one player the work’s centrepiece - the poetic Adagio non troppo - in singing, tender resonance. Adding an extra dimension and throwing light on Brahms’ personal emotional life, the Serenade movements were punctuated by actor Alex Ansky’s reading of excerpts from letters of Brahms  from Shimshon Inbal’s lofty Hebrew translation of “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer: letters effusive with love to his mother and Clara Schumann, a jolly description of his birthday celebration and quite a heartrending account of Robert Schumann’s dying in letters to his friend Julius Otto Grimm; also a self-effacing, letter to violinist Joseph Joachim, showing admiration for the violinist’s compositions.

Taking Max Reger’s lesser-known but rich piano transcription of J.S.Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D-minor BWV 565, Meir Wiesel adapted it to the 8-hand “Octopus” constellation. Dousing the opening chords in a ringing effect of the sustaining pedal was a reminder of the grand church pipe organ and church acoustic, but from there, we were returned to the possibilities offered by two modern grand pianos. Comparing organ and piano timbres here would be a pointless exercise; using the physical strength demanded of the modern pianist, the artists presented the work’s drama of large dimensions; its pared-down, more intimate sections came across with pleasing articulacy. As to the work’s daring and pomposity, referred to as “famosissimo” and “celebratissima” by Alberto Basso in his 1979 Bach biography, that is what the work is about, and the audience loved it.

Performer, scholar and researcher Taiseer Elias, one of the world’s leading soloists in the field of classical Arab music, founded and has headed the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Department of Eastern Music, leading the Arab-Jewish Orchestra; he also teaches at Bar-Ilan University. At the Tel Aviv concert, we heard Professor Elias in solo on the oud in improvisations and variations on “The Pretty Maiden”, an Arabic folk melody.  Elegant, virtuosic and succinct, Elias’ poetical playing produced a kaleidoscope of east and west – the song melody richly ornamented, then dovetailed with sections based on western harmonies, including a reflection on the Bach Toccata and Fugue performed prior to the solo. The use of a microphone allowed listeners in the hall to enjoy every filigree detail to the full.

An auspicious item on the program was the world premiere of “Metamorphosis”, a work by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni (b.1927) for oud and 8 hands on two pianos. Professor Avni spoke briefly about the piece’s genesis. When Meir Wiesel approached him in July 2016 with the suggestion of a new work for “Octopus” and oud, Avni had just finished reading Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis”, in which Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find he has turned into a large, monstrous insect. The novella proceeds to deal with Gregor’s attempt to deal with the situation and to his family’s attitude to the repulsive creature he has become. Avni makes no effort to write the story into the work, but has taken from it the theme of coping, of finding solutions to a given situation, such as living in Israeli society, where east and west meet. Avni’s opening gesture in “Metamorphosis” takes the form of an imposing and uncompromising piano cluster. Then, in writing that is both pleasing and appropriate for the instrument, we hear the oud in its own musical agenda. Dialogue between pianos and oud oscillates between the docile and the conflicted. Following a long, engaging oud solo, the pianos enter once more, accompanying the oud in velvety textures, the strumming of piano strings at one moment meeting the oriental plucked instrument in a spacy, otherworldly effect. In this new work, Tzvi Avni has met and juxtaposed the most unlikely of instrumental combinations, coupling them on an intensely human level in a musical language of the senses, in a piece bristling with interest and with timbral appeal.

The program concluded with Emil Kronke’s 8-hand setting of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9 “Carnival in Pest”. With its blend of folk melodies and virtuosic passages, connected by improvisatory elements, the work evokes the atmosphere of a Budapest carnival from around 1840. Indulging in the constant changes of mood and “scoring”, the pianists gave a dazzling performance of the work’s Hungarian dance melodies, addressing its intimate moments and its elaborate, colourful finale - a challenging tour-de-force. Then for two encores: Aram Khachaturian’s unleashed “Sabre Dance”, well suited to the 8-hand medium, followed by a somewhat sober rendition of Beethoven’s “Turkish March”. “Octopus”, its members spanning a wide range of ages, offers the concert-going public a new, fresh approach to concert repertoire in playing that is both tasteful and most stylish!