Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Leipzig Synagogue Choir on tour in Israel - November 2017

Photo: Irene Coster

The Leipziger Synagogalchor (Leipzig Synagogue Choir), a German ensemble that performs exclusively Jewish choral music, was established in 1962 by Cantor Werner Sander. Following Sander’s death, the ensemble’s direction was taken over by Helmut Klotz in 1972. Since 2012, Ludwig Böhme has served as the choir’s musical director. The recipient of several awards, the choir records and performs widely, promoting international- and interreligious dialogue.  Much of the choir’s repertoire consists of the 19th century liturgical music that was sung in German synagogues - for choir and soloists, either a-cappella or with keyboard accompaniment -  and pronounced in the particular Ashkenazi manner used by German Jewry up to the Holocaust. Today, some arrangements of Yiddish songs also make up the repertoire.  What is totally unique about this ensemble is that conductor and members, none of whom belong to the Jewish faith, are keeping this important tradition alive and presenting it to audiences in Europe and further afield. This writer attended the concert held at the Moreshet Yisrael Synagogue, Jerusalem, on November 13th 2017, where the Leipzig choir was hosted by the Jerusalem Meitar Choir (director: Ido Marco). Soloists from Germany were Dorothea Wagner (soprano), Falk Hoffmann (tenor), Tilmann Löser (piano) and Reinhard Riedel (violin).


Both choirs joined to open the event with Louis Lewandowski’s setting of “Ma Tovu” (How Great are thy tents), with the Leipzig Synagogalchor (and soloists) performing more of the much-loved Lewandowski songs; their sensitive singing of the soul-searching “Enosh” text from the Day of Atonement memorial service was especially expressive and moving:

“ As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.” (Psalm 103).


Italian Baroque composer Carlo Grossi’s “Cantata Ebraica in Dialogo” for soloist and choir, in the style of Monteverdi but to texts in Hebrew, is set for soloist, 4 part choir, and basso continuo. It iforms a musical dialogue between soloist and choir. Dorothea Wagner’s performance of the virtuosic solo part was lively and informed, with some tasteful ornamentation in her finely-detailed reading of the piece. Interestingly, the tiny cantata was commissioned (from the non-Jewish Grossi)  by a Jewish fraternity in Modena. Remaining in Italy, we heard a-cappella repertoire of Salomone Rossi presented with clean, fresh and well-coordinated sound. German-born cantor, composer and researcher of Jewish music Samuel Naumbourg, who lived most of his life in France, was instrumental in the revival of Rossi’s synagogue music. Dorothea Wagner gave vivid expression to the solo in his “S’u Sho’rim” (Lift up your heads, o ye gates), a piece very much in the traditional German synagogue style.


The ensemble’s uncompromising performance of Russian cantor (1843–1911) Abraham Dunajewski’s “Na’ariz’cho”, a work rich in drama and contrasts, featuring choir and both soloists, was impressive and stirring.


Not many concert-goers will be aware of the fact that, a few months before he died in 1828 at the age of 31, Franz Schubert produced a setting of the Psalm No. 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai for choir and baritone, and using the Hebrew text.  It was commissioned by cantor and influential Viennese composer of synagogue music Solomon Sulzer, the solo to be sung by the Sulzer himself. Homophonic and harmonically uncomplicated, typical of Schubert part songs, with solos subtly woven in and out of the choral role, the piece was given a beautifully chiselled performance.


The program gave quite some focus to works inspired by the Kaddish, the magnification and sanctification of God's name, the term “Kaddish” often used to refer specifically to the mourner’s prayer.  An effective combination was made of Maurice Ravel’s “Deux mélodies hébraïques” - Reinhard Riedel’s plaintive performance of a Jewish-sounding solo violin solo, also Dorothea Wagner and Tilmann Löser in the “Kaddish”, the gentle dissonances of Ravel’s evocative accompaniment adding interesting, otherworldly effects to the customary Kaddish melody. Sandwiched between these two pieces was Salomone Rossi’s “Kaddish” setting, in which we had the opportunity of hearing Ludwig Böhme’s sonorous, warm tenor voice.


Moving into the 20th century, the Leipzig Synagogalchor sang Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush” (1946) (the prayer of thanksgiving for the Sabbath evening wine), commissioned for the 75th anniversary of New York's Park Avenue Synagogue and dedicated it to Weill’s father, who had been chief cantor in Dessau. Falk Hoffmann’s expressive powers made for an eloquent and moving performance of this liturgical gem, as he presented the incantations of the cantor against sultry blues-influenced responses of the choir.


Moving from sacred music to secular, the concert ended with a few Yiddish songs and one traditional Hebrew tune - songs of Mordechai Gebirtig, Mikhl Gelbart and Itzik Manger.  It would have been helpful to have the song texts to follow for the narrative of Gelbart’s “Di Nakht” (Night), for example, its eerie agenda punctuated by outbursts, in Juan Garcia’s superb and nostalgic setting of Gebirtig’s mood piece “Kinderyorn” (Childhood Years) or in Fredo Jung’s lilting arrangement of Itzik Manger’s “Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym’ (A Tree Stands on the Path), so finely blended. All these arrangements were outstanding. Indeed, Friiedbert Gross’s original and challenging arrangement of Avraham Idelsohn’s “Hava Nagila” (Let us rejoice) breathed new colour and energy into a rather overworked song!


Beyond its unique mission, the Leipziger Synagogalchor offers performance of the highest professional standard, its singers, and indeed its instrumentalists, splendidly trained, inspiring, disciplined and communicative.

Photo: Ann Hornemann

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra opens its 47th season with two new works of Israeli composers

Composer Yitzhak Yedid (photo:Alan Shaw)

    The  Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra recently opened its 47th concert season with “The Great Opening”, eight concerts performed throughout Israel. This writer attended the festive event on November 1st in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Conducted by the orchestra’s musical director, Swedish trombonist, conductor and composer Christian Lindberg, who also spoke briefly about each work, the concert was the first of the new season’s globe-trotting theme of “North-South-East-West”. The opening concert  featured alto Nitzan Alon, tenor Tal Koch and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director: Yuval Benozer).The NKO’s house conductor,  Shmuel Elbaz, was present at the event, meeting and chatting with audience members in the foyer over a glass of wine.

      The “North-South-East-West” theme promises programming of great variety and daring, and this  concert was no exception. The event opened with Johannes Brahms’ Rhapsody for alto, men’s choir and orchestra op.53 (1869), referred to by Lindberg as “one of the most beautiful love songs ever written”. The work represents Brahms’ infatuation not for Clara Schumann but for Julie, Clara and Robert Schumann’s daughter; it was composed on the news of her engagement. The composer wrote the solo for contralto, his favourite voice. From the work’s very opening sounds, Israeli-born alto Nitzan Alon, today a soloist with the Israeli Opera, drew the audience into the mood piece, giving an intense and profound performance, her singing easeful, her vocal timbre rich and warm in all registers. Alon’s substantial voice contended well with the orchestra. She gave expression to the work’s innate sadness and the mounting anguish of the first two verses (both in C-minor), with the mood mellowing into a glow of hope in the third verse (now in C-major) as she was joined by the men’s choir.

Remaining in the West, but moving northwards to Finland, we heard the Israeli premiere of Jean ibelius’ Symphony No.3 in C major op.52. Begun in 1904, the work was premiered in Helsinki in 1907 under the baton of the composer himself. Lindberg spoke of the Finns’ great belief in nature, and the listener might certainly have sensed its  darkness, moving into the midnight sun and of the life-affirming powers of nature as referred to by the conductor. Symphony No.3, almost neo-Classical in concept, is more restrained than its two antecedents; still, the musical canvas, coloured with folk music associations, is exceptionally rich, from the ‘cellos and basses’ opening theme of the first movement, robust in melodic contour and rhythms, to the Nordic, bittersweet character of the second movement, to the soaring tutti and exhilarance of the final movement, in which a hymn-like melody rises up in the low strings. This is fine orchestral fare. The NKO’s playing was well coordinated, vibrant, incisive and dedicated. Such a work can only benefit  from the fine standard of the NKO’s wind players, with  woodwind utterances adding enjoyment and interest to what could only be termed as a lush, buoyant orchestral sound.

In a unique project to promote works of student-composers, of the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra has invited three students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and three from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to each compose a three-minute-long orchestral piece. The audience will hear one at each of this season’s concerts and will then vote for which it believes to be the best. Born in 1987, Ido Isak Romano is a masters student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. His contemporary musical language is influenced by western classical music, electronic music, jazz and even Turkish music. We heard  his symphonic prelude “Elevations” (2017), a work inviting the listener to traverse different strata “mountains,the ground, oceans etc.” through his “integration of the various instrumental registers and textures”, in the composer’s words, “these creating new imaginary possibilities, enabling the listener to personally experience moving between these regions…” Romano’s orchestration is vivid, bristling with shimmering, dissonant screens of sound, clashes, breathy effects, slow microtonal ‘cello glissandi and timpani glissandi produced by the use of friction mallets, these echoed by the double basses, his forthright soundscape punctuated by a recurring, unrelenting and strong single beat of sound. A celebration of exuberance and orchestral colour, Romano’s piece seems to suggest that he has much more to say than is possible in a three-minute miniature.

Moving east, we heard  another new work by an Israeli composer. Yitzhak Yedid (b.1971), today living in Australia, where he lectures at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. Commissioned by Maestro Lindberg and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra,“Blessings and Curses” (2017), a work of one movement, takes its inspiration from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a place holy to both Jews and Muslims as well as being a site fraught with conflict, vulnerability and tension, as is obvious from the title of the piece. Yedid’s writing is characterized by its inclusion of a wide spectrum of styles, textures and colours, reflecting the new and the ancient, in which his practical knowledge of the elements of Arabic music, jazz and western classical music join to form his own coherent musical style. Scored for chamber orchestra, “Blessings and Curses” is composed of 20 sections played in unbroken sequence, into which Yedid articulately weaves elements of eastern Jewish- and Arabic music with those of avant-garde western music, creating a canvas bristling with life, whose message is both tense and urgent. The music’s sarcastic undertone speaks of the unsolved political and social complexities represented by the Temple Mount. The work’s compositional writing is also complex, challenging the players to do justice to its multi-layered rhythmic structures. Lindberg and the NKO gave this fascinating and thought-provoking piece an exciting and finely coordinated reading.

With the Gloria from Giacomo Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria”, the concert concluded in the south. Puccini composed the Mass, scored for orchestra, four-part choir and tenor and baritone soloists, as his graduation exercise from the Istituto Musicale Pacini. Its first performance was in Lucca on July 12, 1880. Puccini never published the full manuscript of the Mass, and although it was well received when composed, it was not performed again until 1952 (first in Chicago and then in Naples). The Gloria, a veritable tour-de-force, with its profuse rhythmic energy, soaring melodies and emotional gestures, seemingly mixing at least as much of the profane (overtly operatic in style, in fact) as with the sacred, is a piece of great variety. Tenor, composer and actor Tal Koch gave an engaging rendering of the dramatic “Gratias agimus” solo, his singing suitably Italianate in timbre and temperament.  The Israeli Vocal Ensemble singers presented the Gloria’s various moods and textures with clarity and freshness, their polished performance bringing out Puccini’s flair for storytelling and the piece’s joyful moments (opera chorus fare!) but remaining within the boundaries of  good taste.

Maestro Lindberg’s energy and enthusiasm added effervescence to the season’s opening concert, his informal, genial manner bringing artists and audience together in a program of interest and variety.



Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Andrew Parrott and joined by overseas guest artists, presents the first complete Israeli performance of Monteverdi's "Vespers"

Maestro Andrew Parrott and singers (photo: Maxim Reider)
Conducted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott, the orchestra opened its 29th season with the first complete Israeli performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine”.  This writer attended the performance on October 31st 2017 in the Zucker Hall, Tel Aviv’s recently-opened chamber music venue, located in the building of the Bronfman Auditorium. Visiting artists taking part in the festive event included tenor Rodrigo del Pozo (Chile), violist/tenor Simon Lillystone (UK), bass Nerijus Misevičius (Lithuania), cornett players Alma Nir-Mayer (Israel) and Elisabeth Opsahl (Norway) and sackbut players Tin Cugelj (Croatia), James Wigfull (UK) and Fabio de Cataldo (Italy). Israeli solo- and ensemble singers were alto Avital Dery, tenors Doron Florentin, Hillel Sherman and Ofri Gross, baritone Guy Pelc and bass Yoav Meir Weiss. JBO founder and music director Prof. David Shemer joined his JBO players on organ.


In his concert notes, David Shemer mentions the different styles incorporated into Monteverdi’s “Vespers”,. He poses the question of whether the work is “a collection of separately written pieces” or to be performed as one work. To the set Vespers format, Monteverdi adds pieces for smaller ensembles to texts from “Song of Songs” and from anonymous early Christian poets. What emerges from the composer’s pen is a work both intimate and grand, prayerful and dramatic, exalted and sensual. As is well known to Baroque choral music aficionados today, Andrew Parrott believes that these works were performed with few singers and not massed choirs. In addition to the 13 players, the JBO performance of the “Vespers” featured eleven singers, all in all.


From the very opening statements of the work’s buoyant, exuberant tutti opening, Parrott had the audience totally captivated and following him all the way through the work’s abundance of varied combinations and constellations. How inspiring it was to hear the timbres of each instrument and each individual voice, the minute details of each vocal line and of the singers’ crystal-clear diction (all of which might be lost in the massed choir setting). The performance’s clarity was also due to the fact that many of the vocal solos, duets and trios were accompanied by small ensembles, these, more often than not, comprising just organ (David Shemer) and theorbos (Ophira Zakai, Eliav Lavi). The first of these was tenor Doron Florentin’s musical, strategic and beguiling singing of “Nigra sum” (“I am black, but comely”, Song of Songs), his sonorous timbre embracing the hall. In “Pulcha es” (“Thou art beautiful, O my love”, Song of Songs”) there was a strong sense of communication between sopranos Einat Aronstein and Yuval Oren, bringing their different timbres together and embellishing vocal lines in good taste. It was at moments like this that Maestro Parrott took a seat, conducting a little here and there, but mostly intent on listening, giving the stage to his singers. There was much to relish in baritone Guy Pelc’s eloquent solos, his vocal agility serving him well in florid lines, the pieces he performed well placed for his vocal range. Such was “Audi coelum” (O heaven hear my words), with Ofri Gross echoing from backstage or in the poignant “Quia respexit” (“For he hath regarded”, Magnificat), the latter adorned with the delicacy of recorders. Rodrigo del Pozo, whose high tenor range enables him to do justice to the demands of the alto part, sang with articulate, smooth assurance, as in the “Fecit potentiam” (“He hath showed strength”, Magnificat) floating the melodic line in long note values against rapid string movement.  In the somewhat enigmatic “Esurientes” (Magnificat), Einat Aronstein and alto Avital Dery gave sensitive expression to the text’s compassion, punctuated by virtuosic, vehement interjections from JBO violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid, with singers and violinists finally meeting in harmony at the piece’s conclusion.  Another wonderful feature of the performance was how the Psalms and Magnificat were issued in with Simon Lillystone’s distinctive and informed singing of plainchant antiphons, each then be joined by Yoav Meir Weiss, Hillel Sherman and Andrew Parrott himself.


Parrott’s rendition of Monteverdi’s inclusion of the ancient “Ave Maris Stella” hymn (“Hail, Star of the Sea”) bristled with timbral variety, energy and life, as he scored each verse differently, inviting vocal ensemble, Avital Dery, Yuval Oren, Einat Aronstein and Guy Pelc to sing verses, also colouring the ritornellos with different instrumental combinations. In the “Duo Seraphim” (“Two seraphim cried out”), which Parrott has decided to move to the work’s conclusion, Pelc, Florentin and Lillystone struck a splendid blend of musical and timbral consensus in performance that was profound and expressive.


The instrumental aspect of the JBO performance of the Monteverdi “Vespers”, focusing on the unique colour and manner of each instrument, reflected Parrott’s predilection for the mostly economic use of instruments, for personal expression, rather than a massed sound. The instrumentalists complemented the vocal component, providing much delight throughout the evening. What a treat it was to hear guest players Lillystone on viola and the five such fine cornett and sackbut players. In addition to the instrumentalists’ interaction with the singers in the “Vespers”, the evening included Cima’s Sonata for cornetto, trombone and basso continuo (Alma Nir-Meir, James Wigfull, David Shemer) and Valente’s appealing “Salve Regina” (David Shemer), the latter offering the audience some delectable moments in which to take stock of what it was experiencing in this momentous work.


Monteverdi’s rarely performed 1610 “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” presents an extraordinary array of textures and sonorities in brilliant instrumental writing, rich choruses and moving solo arias and duets. In performance that emerged uncluttered and personal throughout, Maestro Andrew Parrott, clearly addressing the individual sonority and colour of each singer and player, created a breathtakingly beautiful musical canvas for a performance that, for many of those attending, will remain unforgettable.

Baritone Guy Pelc (photo: Maxim Reider)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Israel Mozart Orchestra performs an all-Mozart program at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv

Photo: Shirley Burdick
The Israel Mozart Orchestra was formed for the Toujours Mozart Festival, that took place at the Elma Arts Center (Zichron Ya’akov) in 2016. A chamber ensemble made up mostly of Israelis (some resident outside of Israel), it plays without a conductor, being led by the concertmaster. This writer attended the IMO’s recent concert in the Ran Baron Hall of the Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv) on October 21st 2017. The all-Mozart program was performed on period instruments. Overseas guest artists were concertmaster - violinist Joanna Huszcza (Poland/Belgium), oboist Marcel Ponseele (Belgium) and violist Kaat de Cock (Belgium).

W.A.Mozart’s different genres of occasional music reflect his predilection for home entertainment and social activities. The Tel Aviv concert began with two of Mozart’s divertimenti. The divertimenti, performed at parties in Mozart’s time, are all scored for strings and two horns, two of them adding an extra wind instrument. Lacking the formality and virtuosic approach of his concert music and the drama of his operas does not mean that these works lack the composer’s compositional perfection. When they do make it to the concert platform nowadays (sadly, too rarely) they are often performed by sizeable orchestras. The one-to-a-part manner in which we heard them played at the Tel Aviv concert would have been much closer to the scoring and sound world of 18th century house music. Presenting Divertimento no.11 in D-major K.251 (1776), featuring Marcel Ponseele on oboe, the players brought out the work’s charm and joie-de-vivre and its occasional surprises. Ponseele’s solo sections bristled with life and interest, his tasteful flexing of rhythms lending did  Huszcza’s ornamenting and that of violinist Jonathan Keren as in the noble-stepping (4th movement) Menuetto. Stripped of its formality, the French-style Marcia, the work’s final movement, with its charming asides, was allowed to somewhat dance. Who knows if the original Salzburg musicians did not also open the intermezzo with the Marcia  to attract the partygoers’ attention from eating, drinking and conversing! It seems Mozart wrote this divertimento for his sister’s name-day. Nannerl would have enjoyed its sunny, French touches.

We then heard Mozart’s Divertimento No.15 in B-flat major K.287 for strings and two horns, written for the celebration of Countess Antonia Lodron of Salzburg’s name-day (also referred to as the Second Lodron Serenade). Joanna Huszvza leads well. Her splendid playing of the demanding and sometimes florid 1st violin part was a reminder that, in Mozart’s time, K287 was occasionally performed as a violin concerto (with Mozart himself as soloist). Playing on natural horns, Alon Reuven and Barak Yeivin added variety and beauty of timbre to the ensemble, giving expression  to the composer’s intentions by  playing the instrument Mozart must have had in mind and setting up a fine balance in the ensemble. And, as the two changed crooks from movement to movement, they made playing natural horns look easy! The Tema con variazioni (2nd movement) abounded with charm, interest and variety. Would the countess have recognized the theme taken from folksong tunes commonly associated with vulgar words? In its performance of the two Intermezzi, the IMO players gave the music its due, displaying Mozart’s skill in treading the fine line between simplification and interest, between user-friendly communication and sophistication.

Alfred Brendel once referred to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat major, K.271, “Jeunehomme” as “one of the wonders of the world, which showed Mozart in an entirely new light”. He claimed that Mozart “did not surpass this piece in the later piano concertos”, adding that it “looks to the future, and yet it comes from a Baroque tradition which the later concertos no longer continue.” A truly unique work, its score is fully written out - lead-ins, cadenzas and embellishments. Composed in January of 1777 for strings, horns and oboes, when Mozart was just turning 21, the concerto has long been known as the “Jeunehomme” concerto after its supposed dedicatee, but this has recently been found to be a misnomer, as the dedicatee’s actual identity was a certain Madame Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812), a French pianist. The IMO’s splendid line-up of players displayed  Mozart’s use of the instruments in novel ways to create dramatic dialogue between piano and orchestra. Zvi Meniker, who  currently teaches harpsichord, fortepiano and performance practice at the Hannover Conservatory, performed the solo role on a fortepiano belonging to Bar-Ilan University. There was close communication between him and the other instrumentalists. Meniker’s playing of the opening movement was vibrant and articulate, his reading of the dark, C-minor Andantino complemented by sensitive nuancing on the part of the other players, his performance of the cadenza spontaneous and personal. The Rondeau movement, with its extensive and demanding solo moments, was a fine vehicle for Meniker’s easeful energy and virtuosity, as well as for both Mozart and Meniker’s taste for surprises - Mozart’s in interrupting the Rondeau with an unconventionally placed minuet part way through and Meniker’s in finding room in the cadenza to quote the popular Hebrew song “Hava nagila”.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Berlin-Tel Aviv", tenor Assaf Kacholi's first solo album

Photo:Yonatan Birenbaum
Tenor Assaf Kacholi’s solo repertoire spans several genres, from opera to oratorio, from Lieder to Israeli songs. cabaret music and Italian love songs. Born in Israel, Kacholi has been living in Berlin since 2002. In 2007, he joined the highly successful German classical-crossover “Adoro” Ensemble. “Berlin-Tel Aviv”, his first solo album, was released in September 2017 on the GEMA label. His own personal choice of pieces, the disc offers an assortment of songs covering a number of genres, each accompanied on either guitar or piano.

The earliest of the pieces on the CD is John Dowland’s lute ayre “Flow My Tears”, with Shani Inbar’s guitar accompaniment indeed a satisfactory substitute for the original lute and Kacholi reflecting Dowland’s gloom in such dejected and contradictory utterances as
“Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite”.

Two items of the disc provide an all-to-brief glimpse into a genre close to Kacholi’s heart and one that sits very well with his voice - the Romantic German Lied. In “Ständchen” (Serenade), dating from the last months of Schubert's life, Kacholi and pianist Efrat Levy take time to re-create the limpid music of yearning coloured with Schubert’s major/minor fragility, as the serenader invites her lover to join her on a nocturnal rendezvous. Kacholi’s reading of Clara Schumann’s “Die stille Lotosblume” (The Quiet Lotus Blossom), composed in 1842 (lyrics: Emanuel Geibel) is a beautifully controlled mood study, as the silvery, moonlit poem is presented with poetic lyricism. One senses that Kacholi is very comfortable with the German language. Moving with ease into the musical theatre mode of Kurt Weill, Kacholi strikes a fine balance between the bitter-sweet intimacy of a text telling of betrayal and the political message of “Wie lange noch?” (How long before it’s over?) to lyrics of Walter Mehring. And, on a different note, his debonair singing, evoking Berlin allure in the suave, leisurely foxtrot of “Berlin in Licht” (Berlin in Light).

The salon songs of Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) envelop the human voice with natural, Italian warmth, having been on the playlists of such opera singers as Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso, as well as being an important part of Pavarotti’s repertoire. Kacholi’s singing of Tosti’s songs engages in their easeful melodiousness, their lush elegance and gentle sentimentality, as he conveys their ideal of love and its niche in our dreams. Especially evocative are his two reflective renditions of Nino Rota’s “What Is a Youth?”, to superbly played accompaniments - the first on guitar (Shani Inbar), with a second rendition together with Orit Wolf on piano -  the latter from a live performance. Wolf and Kacholi’s fine collaboration is also heard in George (and Ira) Gershwin’s “By Strauss”, their quick-witted and entertaining performance articulate, jaunty and certainly “light of foot”.

Assaf Kacholi’s ties with Israeli song repertoire, both emotional and profound, filter through generously in his singing of those on the disc. We hear: him and guitarist Yonatan Birenbaum’s exotic and velvet-like performance of Noam Sheriff’s “Thou art Beautiful” (Song of Songs) and their beautifully crafted and moving interpretation of  “My Little Bird” (lyrics: Pinchas Sadeh, music: Oded Lerer). The many facets and colours of Assaf Kacholi’s voice also play out effectively in his evocative and caressing performance of “Lullaby” (lyrics: Natan Alterman, music: Sasha Argov), all the more fetching for Orit Wolf’s poignant accompaniment:
“Now the road itself will sleep
For the end is near…
And the king has lost his crown
As the fools appear.
Rest your head, the boat, the brook,
Tranquil lies the Persian souk,
Turn down the lights, the dark is lush...
And quiet, quiet...hush…”                Translation: Achinoam Nini

In recording “Berlin-Tel Aviv”, Assaf Kacholi opens his personal music portfolio to us. His richly endowed voice and warmth of sound invite the listener to listen again, to connect with his musicality and sincerity. The disc is also a statement of personal conflict, a searching of identity, of Assaf Kacholi’s confidence to say: “These are my songs”.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace" performed at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem

Photo: Frank.D. Roemer
The first Jerusalem performance of Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” took place on October 16th 2017 at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem. Under the direction of Dr. Helmut Föller, the work was performed by a joint choir made up of the Collegium Vocale Bad Homburg, Germany (director Helmut Föller), the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem) and Schmidt’s Girls College Choir, Jerusalem (director: Erwin Meyer). The instrumental ensemble comprised German- and local players. Soprano Hayat Chaoui sang the solos. Helmut Föller and Erwin Meyer shared the conducting.

Opening the event, Pater Nikodemus Schnabel, pastor of the Dormition Abbey, spoke of the complicated question of performing a piece that includes content from India, the Far East and Muslim liturgical material in a church on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Could this be considered scandalous? Or a loss of identity? The overriding issue he concluded is that of human beings killing each other, that this is what should shock us. Fr. Nikodemus invited audience members to open their hearts to the challenge of the music, to its intellectual dialogue and to have the courage to be changed by it..

Welsh oboist and composer Karl Jenkins (b.1944), whose oeuvre ranges from pop, to symphonic music, spiritual chorus, ethnic music and to film music, composed the “The Armed Man” in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo conflict. It was premiered in April 2000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and has since been much performed and recorded. Jenkins explains that “The Armed Man” was inspired by the "L'Homme armé" Masses that were prevalent in the 16th century, and he makes this reference clear with movements based on Renaissance polyphony. The work also includes writing in earlier and later styles. In the masterful weaving of disparate sources into a coherent and compelling whole, “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” manages to  combine parts of the Ordinary of the Mass  with other texts pertaining to war and its horrors -  a Japanese poem about the firestorms that followed the atomic bombs, an apocalyptic passage from India's Mahabharata and more.

A crossover work of this variety poses many challenges to performers, yet this group - a mix of amateurs and professionals - gave poignant expression to the many styles and gestures used by Jenkins. Bookended by two different treatments of the 15th century melody, the work’s contents emerged as moving and shocking, its  emphasis on the dehumanisation of war as strong as its humanistic statement. In meticulously coordinated and precise performance, the three percussionists gave credence to the work’s stark, arresting message, as did the very fine brass players. Oboist Stefan Gleitsman’s solos were exquisitely performed. Altogether, the instrumental ensemble contributed high-quality and engaging performance.

The conductors’ dedicated work amalgamated  choral singers of different ages and backgrounds into a splendidly blended choral ensemble, attentive to detail and colour. Their singing pleased with its pure, unforced and unmannered quality, whether engaging in the haunting tones of the “Sanctus”, the calming, velvety textures of the “Agnus Dei” and the “Benedictus” or in the clamorous tutti sections describing war scenes:
‘The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions—
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!’       Rudyard Kipling “Hymn before Action”

German-born soprano Hayat Chaoui’s stable, crystal-toned voice and her fine diction gave expression to solo sections in singing that was at the same time objective, moving and subtle. In “Now the Guns have Stopped”, against the pale otherworldly sounds of high strings, she presents the feelings of personal guilt and sadness weighing on a survivor returning from World War I; the text is by Guy Wilson (b.1950, curator of the United Kingdom’s national museum for arms and armour from 1988 to 2002:)
‘Silent, so silent now,
Now the guns have stopped.
I have survived all,
I who knew I would not.
But now you are not here.
I shall go home alone;
And must try to live life as before
And hide my grief.
For you, my dearest friend,
who should be with me now,
Not cold too soon,
And in your grave,

As “Better is Peace”, the work’s 13th and final section, concluded with a serene chorale, its tranquil harmonies became infused with the sounds of church bells ringing outside, a poignant reminder of where we were.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Stuttgart Chamber Choir, conducted by Frieder Bernius, opens the 52nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Photo: David Goland
Of the three visiting choirs to the October 2017 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir (Kammerchor Stuttgart), under its founder and musical director Frieder Bernius (no new face to the Israeli concert stage) performed a program of works of Bach and Romantic composers at the festival’s opening concert in the Kiryat Yearim Church on October 11th. Founded in 1968, the ensemble today comprises mostly young professional singers and is renowned for its high musical standards and stylistic flexibility.


The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s imposing “Te Deum” in D-major written for double choir, soloists and eight soloists. Written in 1826 for the opening of Berlin’s Singakademie building in 1827, Mendelssohn, a newly-baptised Christian, composed his first liturgical work. Although only 17 years old at the time, his complete mastery over every aspect of choral writing is  evident throughout the work. In twelve movements and using Baroque continuo concept, the work relies heavily on the musical language and scoring of the 17th and 18th centuries, producing an eclectic mix of styles. Bernius and his singers’ articulacy of musical expression and diction presented the work’s variety of colour, texture and dynamics. One highlight was the “Te aeternum patrem” (All the world doth worship thee) in which, one by one, each of the soloists commented on the text in ascending/descending patterns. The “Dignare, Domine” (Vouchsafe, O Lord), spiralling into a web of 16-part counterpoint, was also especially moving.


Then, to two solo songs of Gustav Mahler, arranged for a-cappella choir by German composer, conductor and musicologist Clytus Gottwald (b.1925). In “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) (Rückert) the singers created the haunting mood of the piece (reflecting the composer’s inner conflict in his moment of collapse some months previously), their melodic lines melting seamlessly into each other, here and there meeting in urgency and dissonance, Mahler’s message, though finally positive, tinged with the disturbing death knell. This was followed by “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”  from “Songs of a Wayfarer”, with Gottwald’s brilliant “orchestration” of the voices presented poignantly in subdued tones. Mahler’s moments of happiness are tinged with longing and sadness. Following the Mahler songs, we heard the Stuttgart Chamber Choir in another of Gottwald’s skillfully created arrangements - “Solveijg’s Song” (Peer Gynt), easily the most popular of Edvard Grieg’s 180 songs. The singers gave delicate contrast to the song’s two alternating melodies - the wistful, more nostalgic mood and the gently lilting folk dance-type refrain.


The concert concluded with “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesu, My Joy) BWV 227, J.S.Bach’s longest and most complex motet, written some time between 1723 and 1727 for St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was director of music. It uses as its basis the eponymous chorale by Johann Crüger (words by Johann Franck), but includes passages from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. One fascinating aspect of the a-cappella work is its virtually palindromic form, Bach’s experimenting with structure and balance tying in with how the composer augments the four-part chorale settings with movements of both five and three voices and with its message. What characterized this performance was the choir’s means of displaying the work’s stark contrasts - heaven and hell, joy and suffering - achieved in the more vehement, anguished sections through the abrasive use of consonants and detached textures. And, in contrast, for example, how tender and lyrical the 6th section was, the work’s centrepiece double fugue, finally taken to its confident conclusion. The keyword to Bernius’ reading of the work was “clarity”, offering the audience the opportunity to follow all melodic lines, even in the densest contrapuntal moments. A work with a large dramatic range, it is the final chorale, in its directness, returning to simplicity of setting following its copious transfigurations, that leaves the audience humbled and moved.


For its encores, the choir performed two Israeli songs, much to the delight of the audience.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka's recording of three of Dittersdorf's 'Ovid' Sonatas on fortepiano

Michael Tsalka (photo:Timothy K. Hamilton)
James Tibbles (Courtesy:J. Tibbles)
Austrian composer and violin virtuoso Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was a versatile and highly popular court composer of his time. In fact, at the height of his career, Dittersdorf was considered an eminent Austrian composer and one of the leading figures of the Viennese music scene. His popularity was said to have rivalled that of Haydn, Gluck and Mozart.  Although his music was performed all over Europe, he had never managed to find a source of stable patronage as had Haydn. Sadly, his compositions are infrequently performed today, and publications of his music are hard to come by.  Born Karl Ditters, he was an enormously prolific composer; with his oeuvre including 120 symphonies, 45 operas, sacred vocal music, chamber music and keyboard music. In the mid-1780s, several of his compositions were performed in prestigious circumstances, with the palace of Emperor Joseph II becoming the venue for performances of six of his 12 ‘Ovid’ Symphonies. Today, his most familiar works are his symphonies, of which his programmatic symphonies rank high; those based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” remain his best known. Dittersdorf began writing these symphonies in the early 1780s. He had planned to write a set of fifteen, but only composed twelve. Of these, six survive, those corresponding to the first six stories from Ovid’s work. From his youth, the composer had been enchanted by the beauty of Ovid’s poetry, first writing a series of orchestral movements inspired by “Metamorphoses”, then deciding to integrate them to becoming symphonies of the standard late 18th century four-movement form, with a third movement minuet and fast tempo finale. The symphonies were premiered in 1786. James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka’s world premiere recording “Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, four Hands” brings to light the fact that Dittersdorf himself had arranged them for four hands; the three sonatas on this recording are the only known remaining versions of the six missing symphonies. (A four-hand arrangement of one of the surviving symphonies was recently found, suggesting that the composer might have arranged all twelve.)

Fortunately, the synopses and composer’s own program notes for each sonata appear in the disc’s liner notes. In addition to Dittersdorf’s inclusion of detailed programmatic outlines in the original publication, his intention had been to print the fifteen works with newly commissioned engravings, one to precede each movement -  altogether a mammoth undertaking, aimed at producing an opulent collector’s edition. That, however, was never to be. The sonatas on this recording are as follows: “Ajax and Ulysses” (Book XIII), “Hercules Changed to a God” (Book IX) and “Jason Wins the Golden Fleece” (Book VII). In order to comprehend the composer’s multi-faceted pieces, the listener would be advised to equip himself by reading both the composer’s own notes and the three fables themselves, texts bristling with Ovid’s revisionary mythmaking and disregard of authority. However, on my listening to Tibbles and Tsalka’s performance of the three works, some of the narrative seemed to melt away as I found myself captured by the artists’ presentation of the music’s myriad of shapes and juxtaposition of textures, its daring contrasts, its tenderness and its unconventional outbursts. And yet, of course, it is program music, clearly apparent in such movements as the Recitativo and Arioso of “Ajax et Ulysse”, where Ulysses’ oration is so lifelike, so speech-like, or the poignant and sensitive Adagio of “Hercule changé en Dieu”, conveying Deianira’s melancholy so convincingly, or the majestic arrival, pomp and charisma of Jason, as depicted in the opening movement of “Jason, qui emporte la toison d’or”.

Tsalka and Tibbles’ playing is fetching. Flawlessly coordinated, fresh and clean, bold, dazzling and inspired, their reading of the works strikes a happy balance between their own spontaneity and the inbuilt composure of Classical keyboard style. Splendid passagework and contrapuntal clarity make for engrossing listening, as does Dittersdorf’s concept of “orchestrating” the keyboard. Under Tsalka and Tibbles’ fingers, the Metamorphoses’ many moods and textures emerge with articulacy on Paul Downie’s replica of an 1801 fortepiano, its true, unadulterated sound proving to be an extraordinarily fine vehicle for communicating the composer’s rich and often unconventional world of ideas, colours, textures and moods.  Recorded in Auckland, New Zealand in 2014 for the Naxos label, the sound quality of this disc is consistently good. An enterprising project, “Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, four Hands” makes for engaging listening.

One of New Zealand’s leading players of historic keyboards, James Tibbles has an active international performing and recording career, is deputy head of the Early Music Department of the University of Auckland and serves as organist/director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland. He founded and directed “Cantus Firmus”, a Renaissance chamber choir and, till recently, was deputy music director of the New Zealand Youth Choir.

A versatile artist playing both early keyboards and piano, Michael Tsalka maintains a busy international performing schedule and has held more than 100 masterclasses. He is currently serving as artistic director of the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival (Holland) and, together with Dr. Angélica Minero Escobar, is completing a critical edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s keyboard sonatas for Artaria Editions.



Friday, September 22, 2017

The upcoming Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival - October 2017

The Benedictine Crusader Church (photo:Berthold Werner)

The 52nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will take place from October 11th to 14th 2017.
Singer and conductor Hanna Tzur has been the festival’s musical director since 1995. Concerts are held in the spacious Church of the Ark of the Covenant gracing the Kiryat Yearim hilltop and in the intimate Crypt of the 12
th century Benedictine Crusader Church, which nestles in a peaceful, exotic garden. People from all over Israel attend the festival, taking time out from the bustle of everyday life to immerse themselves in good music, enjoy the views over the Judean Hills, to picnic with friends, visit the outdoor performances and browse the craft stalls.

In response to a special request by festival-goers who attended the unforgettable performance of Sicilian Baroque composer Michelangelo Falvetti’s “Il Diluvio Universale”  at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival of October 2016, and indeed  for those who missed the experience, Ensemble PHOENIX, directed by Myrna Herzog, will be presenting the work once again at the upcoming festival (Concert no.8). Joining Ensemble PHOENIX, playing on period instruments, will be sopranos Tal Ganor and Yuval Oren, countertenor David Feldman, tenor Oshri Segev and baritone Yair Polishook. Choirs are always a major attraction of this festival. The 2017 Sukkoth festival will host three overseas choirs: the renowned Stuttgart Chamber Choir conducted by its founder and musical director Frieder Bernius (Concerts 1, 12), the Little Singers of Armenia with their founder, artistic director and principal conductor Tigran Hekekyan (Concert no.7) and a joint concert (Concert no.9) of the Simvol Very Men’’s Choir (Russia) - conductor:Seraphim Dubanov - and the Naama Women’s Choir - founder and conductor: Pnina Inbar.

Other ensembles will be performing in the Kiryat Yearim Church: the Barocameri Ensemble, with soprano Sarah Even-Haim and under the baton of Avner Itai, will perform music of Schubert, Haydn, Bach and Zeira/Orland (Concert no.4); “Stabat Mater” (Concert no.3) will feature soloists, the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra; harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon will direct a line-up of Israel’s finest Baroque singers and instrumentalists in “The Madrigalists Are Back” (Concert No.10); the Vocal Eight Ensemble, with percussionist Erez Munk, will host Yair Dalal in a musical mélange of east and west (Concert no.6).

Wander down to the Benedictine Monastery, where a local man will serve you coffee with cardamom, tea  and rich, sweet pastries under the trees of the exotic, tranquil garden. Then take your seat in the cool, ancient Crypt, where the festival’s more intimate concerts take place. Many of these concerts will offer a crossover musical experience: soprano Tali Ketzef and pianist, conductor and arranger Eran Zehavi will offer a selection of opera, operetta, numbers from musicals and film music in Concert no.12; oud player/violinist Yair Dalal with singer Lenka Lichtenberg will present lullabies in several languages (Concert no.11); in “From London with Inspiration”, soprano Ayelet Cohen and guitarist Uri Yaacov will perform works from Dowland to Adele to Irish songs (Concert no.13); alto Silvia Kigel, pianist Itay Abramovich and violinist Pavel Levin will have you tapping your feet to a rich choice of tangos (Concert no.14); Yair Polishook, one of Israel’s finest and most versatile baritones will be joined by guitarist Eyal Leber in a concert of “Bob Dylan’s Greatest” (Concert no.16); gipsy music will be the theme of Concert no.15, with soprano Shiri Hershkovitz, violinist Saida Bar-Lev and pianist Irit Rob.

Accordion music, an established Abu Gosh Festival tradition, will constitute  the opening event of the 52nd festival, taking the form of performances by a host of excellent accordionists in and around the Church of St. Joseph, Kiryat Yearim, from 12:00 to 16:00 on October 10th.