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Dr. Irving Spitz
Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, has treated its most illustrious son far better in death that it did during life. Indeed, through shrewd public relations and astute marketing, the city has become a magnet for music lovers and the summer festival with its impeccable musical standards represents the Olympus of all festivals. It also has the dubious distinction of having the highest ticket prices. 

This year was the inaugural season of the newly appointed festival director, Alexander Pereira, who relocated from the Zurich Opera. At the outset of his tenure, he stated, “I am convinced that a festival should be unique each year.” The mainstay of the Salzburg festival remains the operatic productions and Pereira revolutionized this format. No longer will previous productions be repeated. The plan is to have new productions at each festival. Even more impressive is Pereira’s intention of staging annually a newly commissioned opera. Funding for this ambitious undertaking has already been secured until 2016. György Kurtág, Hungary’s leading composer, will premiere a new composition at next year’s festival. 

Since there was inadequate time for a new commission during the current festival, Pereira staged Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s epic opera, Die Soldaten. Acknowledged as one of the major operatic compositions of the last 50 years, it has been very infrequently performed because of its notoriously difficult vocal and orchestral demands as well as the complex staging. Pereira selected Latvian stage and set director, Alvis Hermanis, who pulled out all the stops to make this landmark production the absolute highlight of the current festival. 

Hermanis set the action during the First World War. The opera portrays the degradation of the main character, Marie, the naive daughter of a working class family who takes up with the young French nobleman, Desportes, believing that he will marry her. She abandons her fiancée, the draper Stolzius with whom she is still in love. Maria’s father, Wesener, initially warns her against her liaison with Desportes but then relents and even encourages her, believing that Marie could marry above her class. Desportes cynically exploits Marie and then rapidly discards her. Marie gradually becomes the soldier’s whore, flitting from one soldier to another. Stolzius gets his revenge by poisoning Desportes. However this was only a pyrrhic victory since Stolzius also poisons himself. Marie eventually ends up in the gutter where she begs for a morsel of bread from her father who fails to recognize her. 

The opera was performed in the former Felsenreitschule (Rock Riding School), a magnificent theater carved out of the rocks, which was used in the 1600s as a riding school. The staging comprised nine large window arches effectively dividing the huge stage into compartments. The background behind these windows depicted the horrors of war. Dissolute soldiers and other interested and disinterested onlookers viewed the proceedings. They often wandered around aimlessly, lay on beds, drank alcohol and cajoled with women. Seven horses paraded up and down, which added a nice touch considering the previous function of this theater.

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Projected onto the stage were early pornographic daguerreotypes. Thus both the audience upfront and the soldiers behind the windows become voyeurs. Is this pornography or art? It was left to the audience to decide. On several occasions, the action calls for several scenes to be set simultaneously and the ingenious staging brilliantly exploited and allowed for this. 

With the horses came plenty of hay and much of the action was played in a vertical glass cabinet box filled with hay. In one three-part tableau, there was Stolius’s mother pleading with her son to forget Marie. Adjacent was Wesener’s aged mother singing a folk song and in the third scene were Marie and Desportes having their initial sexual encounter in the cabinet box. It was also here that Marie was subsequently raped by Desportes’s gamekeeper. In another dramatic moment, Maria was entrapped alone in the glass box struggling to escape her fate but of no avail. 

Another pivotal scene saw an image of Marie negotiating a tightrope and walking across the giant stage accompanied by an organ interlude. Did this symbolize or imply her impending danger and irrevocable downward spiral? In a final remarkable twist at the end of the opera, one saw Marie high up on the stage clasping stone images of three horses from the Riding school. 

The role of Maria was played by American soprano Laura Aikin, who summoned all her resources to give an outstanding singing and acting portrayal of the complex role. Other memorable performances in the huge cast were given by baritone Alfred Muff as her father. Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny was also most effective as Stolzius as was tenor Daniel Brenna in the role of the despicable Desportes. Another notable performance was that of veteran soprano Gabriela Beňačková as the Countess who invited Maria to live with her to prevent her son from forming too close a liaison with the soldier’s whore. 

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In the pit was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, augmented on both side walls by massive percussion forces which included organ, piano, harpsichord and harps. Full marks go to conductor Ingo Metzmacher who held these gigantic forces together and led a scintillating reading of the complex 12-tone score. 

Puccini has been given short thrift throughout the history of the Salzburg Festival. To date, his only operas to have been performed have been Tosca and Turandot. Pereira staged La Boheme, which proved to be the most popular opera at the current festival. This was no doubt related to the presence of Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko who portrayed the hapless Mimi. The crowds were so dense that it was difficult to cross the road separating the non-fashionable side of the Grosses Festspielhaus (Great Festival Hall) crammed with gaping onlookers from the fashionable side with the ticket holders resplendent in fancy evening attire. 

Netrebko did not disappoint and gave a lustrous, totally committed portrayal of the doomed Mimi. Her vocal control in the pianissimo passages was quite remarkable. Tenor Piotr Beczala as her Rodolfo also gave an impassioned performance as did Massimo Cavalletti in the role of Marcello and soprano Nino Machaidze as Musetta. Bass Carlo Colombara as Colline made a great show of his one great aria when he is about to pawn his coat. 

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Daniele Gatti propelled the Vienna Philharmonic with much vigor. This was orchestral playing at the highest level. This production, directed by Damiano Michieletto was set in contemporary Paris. In many instances maps of the city were prominently displayed together with small buildings. The Bohemian garret scene utilized the entire stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus and lost its intimacy. The Latin Quarter scene was crowded with wealthy Christmas shoppers which dramatically contrasted with the poverty of the opening scene and that of Act 3 set in the outskirts of Paris at a road house selling snacks with the coming and going of workers, trash collectors and women of the night. 

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A nice touch was an invisible hand that scrawled the name of Mini on the fogged and steamed up window splattered with raindrops in the final scene. This was then blotted out implying Mimi’s imminent demise. However this production was certainly not on par with the magnificent singing and orchestral playing which made this Boheme such a resounding success. 

Opera only represents one of the art forms of the Festival, which also includes drama, solo recitals, visiting orchestras, and chamber music events. The new director also introduced a new series of sacred music, which will highlight different faiths in forthcoming festivals. This year, it was Judaism and the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta played a prominent part. Unfortunately I was not in Salzburg for their concerts but the IPO garlanded rave international reviews. 

That incomparable pianist Maurizio Pollini gave a magisterial, cool but unemotional Apollonian account of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. His playing was characterized by intellectual and technical brilliance and mathematical precision but was somewhat cold and distant. In three concerts, pianist Daniel Barenboim undertook a foray into Schubert’s last piano works. In his exploration of these great compositions, in contrast to Pollini, he displayed a more passionate emotional Dionysian approach, capturing the essence of the composer. Barenboim’s rendering of the four Impromptus (D935) was something to be remembered and cherished.

The current festival was highly successful. To date, almost 300,000 visitors have attended, the highest number since its inception in 1920. Over 90 percent of tickets for the 256 performances were sold. 

Part of this review was published in The Jerusalem Post on Sept. 5, 2012


Fig 1: Die Soldaten, Ensemble. Credit Ruth Walz

Fig 2: Die Soldaten, Alfred Muff as Wesener and Laura Aikin as Marie. Credit Ruth Walz

Fig 3: La bohème with Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo and Anna Netrebko as Mimi. Credit Silvia Lelli

Fig 4: La bohème, Ensemble. Credit Silvia Lelli
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Amongst the Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Second World War were distinguished scholars, scientists and artists. Despite adversity, dire inhumane circumstances and deportations to the death camp of Auschwitz, these prisoners organized many notable cultural events. Amongst the most memorable were performances of Verdi’s Requiem under the direction of the Romanian conductor Rafael Schächter. This remarkable individual had at his disposal only a single printed copy of Verdi’s composition. Thus every one of his 150-member chorus had to memorize the complex score by heart. Since there was no orchestra, accompaniment was provided by a legless upright piano propped up on boxes.

Rehearsals were held after the day’s work. Choir members were exhausted and hungry but under Schächter’s inspiration and charisma, these Jewish prisoners rose magnificently to the occasion. There were a total of 16 performances of the Requiem including one before Adolph Eichmann and a Red Cross delegation. The choir was decimated twice by deportations and the indefatigable Schächter had to recruit new volunteers and begin once again the process of teaching them their parts. Eventually Rafael Schächter himself was deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered. The Verdi Requiem was the prisoners’ way of “singing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them,” and represents a sterling and unique example of the answer to man’s inhumanity to man.

Some years ago, the conductor Murry Sidlin, a former Dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University of America in Washington DC, decided to commemorate these performances and to this end he conceived, directed and made commentaries in what is now known as The Defiant Requiem. This received a performance at the recent Israel Festival.

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Sidlin has conducted The Defiant Requiem in several locations, most notably at Theresienstadt itself. His production takes the form of a multimedia drama combining Verdi's Requiem with video footage projected onto two large screens featuring spoken dialog from survivors of Schächter’s original chorus as well as videos of the deportation and other unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Besides the video clips, there were also spoken commentaries by Murry Sidlin as well as from Israeli actors Sasson Gabai and Yona Elian. Dialog and videos were introduced between the movements of the Requiem. Only during the Agnes Dei (Lamb of God) was the music accompanied by Nazi propaganda clips about the camp.

An air of solemnity and dignity pervaded the whole experience. No applause greeted choir, orchestra, soloists and conductor on their entrance. Instead the audience were treated with a section of Bach’s Chaconne, the concluding section of his second Partita for Violin played by the solitary first violinist of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. This was perhaps a reminder to the audience of the rich and varied cultural environment in Theresienstadt despite the inhuman and barbaric conditions. Most of the sections of the Requiem were introduced on the piano, reminiscent of the Schächter performances when this represented the only musical accompaniment.

The most accomplished soloists were soprano Ira Bertman and tenor Yotam Cohen. Particularly noteworthy was Bertman’s contribution to the concluding Libera Me (Deliver Me) section which she sang with passion and much conviction. The Kuhn Choir (Czech Republic) also acquitted themselves well. On occasion, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra sounded somewhat ponderous and laboured. However these minor deficiencies paled into insignificance when one considered the overall impression of this unforgettable emotional and musical experience.

At the end of the performance, darkness descended and there was a piecing whistle-like sound, implying the departure of the trains with their hapless Jewish inmates on the way to their death at Auschwitz. Slowly and silently, choir, orchestra, soloists and conductor exited leaving the lone violinist playing Oseh Shalom part of the traditional Jewish Kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer) for the dead: “He who makes peace in his high holy places may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel.” There was no applause. The audience stood for a moment in total silence and then slowly exited the auditorium.

The performance was shattering and without question, one of the highlights of the recent Israel Festival. This was a most unforgettable experience, which will forever be indelibly ingrained in my psyche. This is especially relevant today with the spectre of an imminent nuclear-armed Iran, a state that officially denies the Holocaust and has repeatedly called for Israel’s annihilation.

Image: Murry Sidlin conducting the Defiant Requiem. Photo courtesy of Alex Irvine.
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Careful nurturing is required to develop her formidable talent

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) featured the 12-year-old Israeli pianist, Maya Tamir, in its most recent subscription concert that was devoted to the music of Franz Joseph Haydn. This event was part of the IPO’s Friday morning Intermezzo series at the Jerusalem Theater. Besides the music, the audience is also treated to coffee and cake. This concert series is introduced by well-known personalities. This time it was David Witzthum, author, pedagogue, and erudite TV editor and commentator. Witzthum gave a fascinating lecture on Haydn, replete with interesting anecdotes and quotes from Haydn, putting him into context to the music of the era and emphasizing his profound influence on the next generation of composers.

Maya Tamir played Haydn’s piano concerto in D Major (Hob.XVIII:11). As can be seen on YouTube, this particular concerto is a frequent vehicle for prodigies. Tamir gave an insightful performance, her interpretation belying her age. At the outset, she was somewhat overwhelmed and displayed some anxiety, which probably accounts for some inconsistencies on the keyboard. However, she rapidly settled in. This was not a routine perfunctory run-through of a popular work, but a subtle interpretation with appropriate changes in tempo and dynamics. Her crescendos and diminuendos came at the right places and she blended in beautifully with the orchestra.

Maya Tamir ?ß?®?ìÔø?Ôø??ò ?®?û?ô ?û?ï?®.jpg
One could argue that the IPO was amiss to devote a full subscription series, comprising four concerts, to this young prodigy. To make the public aware of her exceptional talents is one thing, and certainly an occasional concert with the IPO or other orchestras would be in order. However to devote a full series requires a leap of faith and I am not sure it serves Tamir’s long-term interests. All great artists begin their careers as prodigies. However not all prodigies become great artists. Careful nurturing by family, teachers and other professionals is required for her to fulfill her phenomenal talents. Too early exposure can be detrimental to her full artistic development.

Yoel Levi, currently principal conductor of the Orchestre National d’Ile de France, was on the podium and he provided sympathetic accompaniment for the soloist in the piano concerto. In the second half of the concert he gave a most respectful account of Haydn’s symphony No 104, The London, the last work in this genre, which he composed.

The orchestra responded beautifully with lush string playing. Levi successfully brought out the development of Haydn as a great symphonist and under his baton, Beethoven’s indebtedness to Haydn became readily apparent. There was also some lovely woodwind and brass playing in the second movement. Maybe a little lighter touch was called for in the third movement especially the trio, which sounded a bit ponderous. Levi concluded the performance with a lively account of the final allegro movement, which ended with a flourish. This was an apt conclusion to a most satisfying concert.

The young 12 year old Maya Tamir. Credit: Rami Mor.

This article was originally published in Esra Magazine, Issue No 165, 2012
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Almost 2,000 years ago, the hallowed mountain of Masada was the site of the last stand of the Jews against the Romans, where about 1,000 fighters committed mass suicide rather than surrendering. This event is indelibly ingrained into the psyche of every Israeli.

Over the past two years, Masada has served as a backdrop to the Israel Opera productions of Nabucco and Aida. This year it was Bizet’s Carmen. There were six performances including one dress rehearsal and a total of 50,000 people attended the production. Of these, 3,500 opera lovers came from overseas, specifically to attend the performances and the opening night was projected live at several sites all over Israel. 

Israel Opera’s productions at Masada represent the country’s largest single cultural enterprise. The cost of this year’s production was 30 million shekels (approximately $8.5 million) and ticket prices ranged from 350 to 1300 shekel.

The sheer logistics of this complex enterprise are mind-boggling. The work force comprised over 2,500 people. The huge cast of 400 performers included singers, flamenco dancers from Spain and adult and children’s choirs. Because of the harsh and arid desert conditions, there were two alternating casts. Many of the principal roles were taken by major international singers but there were also prominent Israeli artists amongst the distinguished roster. 

An amphitheatre seating 7,500 people together with a 3,500-square-meter stage is specially constructed for the event. It takes six months of hard work to organize all the logistics for this undertaking. After the performances, everything is dismantled to maintain an eco-friendly environment of Masada, which is a World Heritage Site. 


The operatic extravaganza was directed by Giancarlo del Monaco Zuckerman and William Orlandi designed the sets which exploited the massive stage to the maximum. The incomparable setting with the backdrop of Masada is pure magic. In Act I, set in a square in Seville, the background behind the main protagonists was filled with couples walking arm in arm, and an endless parade of horses with riders and donkeys hauling ploughs and other farm implements. For a purist, this may represent overkill and the busy staging did to some extent detract from the main events unfolding center stage. 

The staging of the tavern scene in Act 2 was impressive and the lighted braziers casting shadows gave a very authentic touch. Again it was very busy with revellers and smugglers. However in the intimate contact of Carmen and Don José, the giant stage was empty except for these two protagonists. In view of all the equestrian activity noted in Act 1, it was somewhat surprising that the bull fighter, Escamillo, made his entrance and exit on the shoulders of two members of his party. 

Act 3 was also innovatively staged and featured a train together with rail tracks. The smugglers unloaded their contraband from the train. The first part of the final Act 4 is set outside the bullring in Seville and contained the expected large crowd of revellers and onlookers witnessing the dramatic parade of the matador’s colorful entourage which even included a carriage drawn by horses.  

However the final scene of Act 4, when Carmen is confronted by Don José, did raise some questions about the director’s intent. Bizet’s instructions call for the stage to be empty, all the spectators having entered the bullring for the matador’s encounter with the bull. Here several hundred seated and standing spectators witnessed Carmen’s gruesome and brutal stabbing.  

Full marks go to choreographer Charlos Vilan, who brilliantly succeeded in exploiting the vast stage to the maximum with Spanish Flamenco dancers and child dancers and actors who performed at every conceivable opportunity, including the overture and the well-known introduction to Act 3.  

The young Israeli mezzo soprano, Naama Goldman, a member of the Israeli Opera's Opera Studio and the recipient of an award from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, was the scheduled understudy for this production. She took over the challenging title role of Carmen with four hours notice, when the scheduled mezzo called in sick. Not an easy task for a young singer in front of 7500 spectators. 

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Nevertheless Goldman rose to the occasion and acted and played the part with aplomb. With her good looks, flowing black hair and coquettish demeanour she proved herself to be a very authentic and believable Carmen. Her amplified voice projected well although there were some minor intonation problems with the lower registers. This was by all accounts a most auspicious debut for the young singer, who is destined for a great future. Soprano Brigitta Kele, in the role of Micaëla also made a good impression especially in the scene when she pleaded with Don José to return to see his dying mother.

Despite the hostile elements including wind and sand, and the relatively unprotected stage, from where I was sitting, the sound engineers appear to have done a magnificent job and orchestra and soloists could be clearly heard. Problems still remain with the vocal amplification of the choir. Daniel Oren who conducted the previous productions successfully brought out all the nuances of Bizet’s score and was most sympathetic to his singers. 

The Israel Opera deserve heartiest accolades for bringing off so successfully this ambitious production. Puccini’s Turandot is scheduled for next year. 

Fig 1: The Israel Opera production of Carmen. Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker
Fig 2: Israeli mezzo-soprano Naama Goldman flanked by Don José (Gustavo Porta) and Micaëla (Brigitta Kele) after her very successful debut at Israel Opera’s production of Carmen. Photo credit: Irving Spitz

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The world’s greatest paintings brought into your living room

An exciting new DVD art series known as 1000 Masterworks (or Meisterwerke in German) has recently been released by ArtHaus Music and is distributed by Naxos. It is based on a highly successful German TV program that has been adapted for the DVD format. A total of 16 DVDs have been released to date and I hope that others are in the offing. I have viewed two and what I saw and heard was so impressive that I decided to bring this to the attention of art lovers. 

With the name 1000 Masterworks, I approached the review with some trepidation fearing that I would be inundated with hundred’s of images. But this was completely unfounded. Only five paintings are featured on each DVD. The discussion on each painting is concise and geared to give the viewer a greater understanding of the specific painting. The spoken dialogue is in English, French or German. The images of the paintings are of high quality and there are many close-ups of various sections of the painting under discussion.

In addition to the selected painting, works by other masters who inspired the artist are often featured. Additional noteworthy creations by the artist are often shown and the influence on subsequent art movements highlighted. This gives an excellent perspective leaving one with a greater understanding and deeper insight into the specific painting as well as the artist and their place in the pantheon of art history.

Durer renaissance portraits.jpegIn the Portrait in the Renaissance, seminal paintings by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Lorenzo Lotto, and Luca Signorelli are all lucidly explained. In the DVD on the Baroque, works by Anton van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velazquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Michelangelo Caravaggio are critically analyzed. My understanding of these art movements was considerably enhanced after viewing these informative DVDs.

The DVDs released cover many of the seminal developments in art history. Each one focuses on one specific art movement beginning with the Italian and Northern European Renaissance. It also covers Flemish paintings from the early and mid-1400s. Other art developments and styles reviewed include mannerism, which served as a link between the renaissance and the Baroque movement. In this art style, the human form is depicted in exaggerated poses and in unrealistic settings. The series then advances to impressionism, German Romanticism and German Expressionism. The latter traces the development of the two major twentieth century schools of this genre including Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).

Cubism and Futurism, the two art movements which revolutionized twentieth century painting are also included. There are also DVDs on the Bauhaus School, Surrealism, Symbolism & Art Nouveau, American painting from the 1950's and 60's as well as abstract expressionism. Some more esoteric epochs are included such as social realism in the now defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Another focus of the series highlights great museums and includes individual DVDs of famous paintings in Paris’s Musee du Louvre, Berlin’s National Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Hopefully other museums will soon be made available.

Baroque van Dyck.jpegI was somewhat perplexed by some of the painting choices and there appear to be some curious omissions. The DVD on Mannerism lists paintings by Parmigianino, Massys, Arcimboldo, Giulio Romano and Paolo Veronese but not the great mannerists, Bronzino and Correggio.

The DVD on Impressionism includes well known artists such as Mary Cassatt, Max Liebermann and Gustave Caillebotte as well as some lesser known luminaries (Albert Edelfeldt and Peter Severin Krøyer). Surprising Manet, Pissarro, Monet and other famous members of this school are given short thrift. Other omissions include Vincent van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Cezanne and Picasso to name only a few.

On the other hand, I stress that to date I have only seen two DVDs. Hopefully this series represents a continuous ongoing process and the artists mentioned above may well be added to the impressive and highly recommended 1000 Masterworks in the future releases.

1000 Masterpieces is released by Arthaus Musik in cooperation with Naxos which is the world’s leading classical music label. Their huge catalogue comprises classical music CDs and DVDs as well as other genres including jazz, new age, educational and audio-books together with state-of-the-art sound and consumer-friendly prices.

Legend to Figures

Fig 1: 1000 Masterworks: The Portrait in the Renaissance: Portrait of an unknown cleric, Albrecht Durer, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Fig 2: 1000 Masterworks: The Baroque. Samson and Delilah, Anthony van Dyck, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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Going from strength to strength

In honor of its 75th anniversary, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) recently put on a two-week music extravaganza with participation of some of the greatest artists in the world. Conductors who made an appearance included Zubin Mehta Valery Gergiev, Christoph Dohnanyi, Gianandrea Noseda and Kurt Masur. Amongst the prominent soloists were Evgeny Kissin, Murray Perahia, Daniil Trifonov, Pinchas Zukerman, Vadim Repin, Gil Shaham and Julian Rachlin.

The IPO’s home base in Tel Aviv, the Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, is currently undergoing refurbishment so the concerts took place in a converted hanger in Tel Aviv’s port. This large cavernous space was not very conducive to music making. It was difficult to see orchestra and soloists although the management did project the happenings on stage onto giant screens, which did to some extent add an element of intimacy. 

There was a splendid recital by Evgeny Kissin, who is today at the very forefront of the world’s great pianists. The first half of the recital was marred by the incessant humming from the air-conditioning units which was only rectified after intermission.  It was a great pity that this recital did not take place in a more appropriate intimate venue.

Despite these drawbacks, Kissin held the audience spellbound by his magnificent playing. In his rendering of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, his performance was divorced from sentimentality and he gave a deeply introspective account of this ever-popular work and finished off with a whirlwind account of the final presto movement.

This was followed by a performance of Samuel Barber’s neo-romantic sonata for piano op 26, which was premiered in 1950 by another Russian, Vladimir Horowitz. Kissin gave a superb account of this fiendishly difficult work. Although tonal in structure, with Kissin at the keyboard, it became readily evident that Barber incorporated some elements of the Viennese atonal school into this work. Especially noteworthy was the very demanding concluding fourth movement, a fugue, which is often performed by itself as a stand-alone composition.

The rest of the concert was devoted to Chopin. Kissin did not over indulge the romantic aspect of this composer’s music and his rendering of the Nocturne Opus 32 no.2 was well thought out and beautifully structured. He then gave a magisterial account of Chopin’s third piano sonata, the composer’s last major work. Particularly arresting was the slow largo trancelike third movement and he brought out all the power of the final movement ending with the dramatic crescendos. This was a fitting climax to a great concert.

The final concert of the festival was devoted to a performance of Beethoven’s first and ninth symphonies. Ken-David Mazur, the son of Kurt Mazur, was at the podium for the first symphony. He coaxed lush flowing string playing from the IPO and there were some lovely woodwind passages in the first movement. All told, this was a solid respectable performance.

Honorary Guest Conductor of the IPO, Kurt Mazur, took over for the ninth symphony. As is his usual practice, he conducted without a baton. He looked somewhat frail and with his minimum arm gestures, it must have been difficult for the orchestra to follow him. Most of their cues came from his facial motions and eye movements. Nevertheless, the orchestra responded magnificently.

fig 1 kurt mazur.jpg Mazur took the first movement at a rather slow, but measured pace. In the third movement, woodwinds, brass and strings combined to give a sublime account of this adagio, arguably the greatest orchestral music that Beethoven ever composed.
The vocal forces made their appearance in the final movement, which contains the famous Ode to Joy by Friedrich Schiller. Beethoven was never kind to his singers and the acoustically hostile environment compounded their problems. Of the soloists, the most satisfying was Ruth Ziesak, whose soaring soprano could be clearly heard above the orchestra and choir. Veteran bass Kurt Rydl did not have a good night. The real heroes were the magnificent Gary Bertini Israeli Choir and the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir. All told, this concert was a fitting climax to a remarkable anniversary celebration.

After this festival, it was back to business as usual with the regular subscription series. In Jerusalem, the 24-year-old Chinese virtuoso pianist, Yuja Wang, selected Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, the so-called Rach 3 for her debut. Because of its technical and musical demands, this is regarded as one of the most difficult in the piano repertoire.

Yuja Wang gave an unforgettable masterful and mature performance, which completely belied her age. She brought a light touch to this work, displaying all the required virtuosity without too much showmanship. Everything flowed seamlessly from her fingers. She captured the Russian romanticism of the work whilst dispatching the many virtuosic passages with gusto and aplomb. Indeed she electrified the audience with a most memorable account of this piano concerto.

fig 2 yuja wang.jpg Peter Oundjian led the IPO in this concert. He was at one time, first violin of the notable Tokyo Quartet but has now branched into conducting and is currently Music Director to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He provided sympathetic accompaniment, although at times, orchestral participation seemed too passive and maybe a little more fire would not have been out of place.

After intermission there was a performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last orchestral work. After Yuja Wang’s tour de force, this was a hard act to follow. Nevertheless, Oundjian and the orchestra certainly conveyed the romantic sweep of the work. Particularly effective was the eerie and sinister waltz motive in the second movement and the Dies Irae which is part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass of the final movement. This was a lively performance but I would have preferred Oundjian to drive the powerful forces of the IPO to an even greater extent in the forte passages. This would have added significantly more dramatic contrasts.

Legend to Figures:

Fig 1: Veteran Conductor, Kurt Mazur (credit Dan Porges ©)

Fig 2: Yuja Wang, acknowledging applause after her concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (credit Shai Skiff)

A riveting performance that will not be readily forgotten

Jenufa is the best known of Czech composer, Leos Janacek’s operas. The young Jenufa is the unmarried stepdaughter of Kostelnicka who is a highly respected citizen in their village. In this tragic saga, Kostelnicka murders Jenufa’s newly born child. She perpetrated this vile act to maintain her honour and social standing in the village. Indeed she was so concerned with her potential humiliation, that she concealed Jenufa throughout her pregnancy. Her vain attempt to maintain respectability and standing in the village, hopelessly misfired.      

The Canadian Daniel Dooner revived German director, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production originally staged for the Glyndebourne Opera. The simple but adequate sets by the German, Tobias Hoheisel, effectively portrayed the small parochial village in Moravia where the action is played out. British born Paul Hastie’s lighting effects were particularly noteworthy especially in Act 2, which is set in Kostelnicka’s house. This added much to the dramatic tension.
In the performance I attended, the role of Jenufa was taken by the Armenian soprano, Karine Babajanyan. Overall she gave a good portrayal of the role although her voice did sound a little strained in the lower registers. Of the male protagonists, pride of place went to the American tenor, Hugh Smith, in the role of Laca. This hapless peasant was hopelessly in love with Jenufa and he slashed and disfigured her face so that she would be rejected by his step brother Steva, who was Jenufa’s lover and father of her baby. Steva was sung by the English tenor Andrew Rees whose voice was certainly up to the part, although his stage demeanour failed to convey the hard-drinking womanizer, which is so central of the role of Steva.

The success of any performance of Jenufa stands or falls on the role of Kostelnicka. Indeed so pivotal is her part that the opera could have been named after her rather than her stepdaughter. In this performance, this difficult role was taken by Israeli Mezzo soprano, Dalia Schaechter, in her debut with the Israel Opera. Ms Schaechter has a remarkably successful career in Germany and has sung roles in Munich, Berlin, Zurich and at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals. 

Kostelnicka is centre stage in the second act which is the linchpin around which the drama revolves. It is her searing monologues and the interaction with Jenufa, Steva and Lacca that represent the very essence of the opera. 

BARBARA HAVERMAN AND DALIA SCHAECHTER.JPGMs Schaechter’s glowing account of the role is something one will not readily forget.  She successfully brought out all the anger, hostility, vengeance and murderous intent, emotions which are all central to the role. But there was also pathos as in her duet with Steva, when she pleaded with him to take back Jenufa and their newborn baby but to no avail. In this duet, she and Steva complemented one another and this was one of the high points of the performance. Only at the opera’s conclusion, after the frozen body of Jenufa’s baby had been discovered in the melting river, did Kostelnicka show remorse admitting that she was only motivated for her own welfare and not that of Jenufa.  

The Israel opera was fortunate in having Dalia Schaechter in this role and she joins the roster of illustrious Kostelnicka’s in the past that I have been privileged to hear including Leonie Rysanek, Anja Silja and Eva Marton.

Lebanese born conductor, George Pehlivanian led the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, the resident orchestra at the Israel Opera. He successfully coaxed the evocative music from the score and proved to be an excellent accompanist to the singers. All told this production of Jenufa was a great triumph for the Israel Opera.

Legend to the Figures

Figure 1: Act 3 of Jenufa.  Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker

Figure 2:  Act 2 of Jenufa with Barbara Haveman as Jenufa and Dalia Schaechter as Kostelnicka.  Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker

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On display are a total of 345 items from the private collection of the Museum’s  co-founder, Ronald Lauder

This extraordinary collection is devoted in large measure to Viennese fin de siècle paintings and drawings by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Gerstl and Kubin as well as decorative arts by Hoffmann and Moser.  Of interest was a transfer drawing on black chalk and paper of Klimt’s Jurisprudence, one of the paintings commissioned by the University of Vienna but never displayed because the university authorities deemed it too pornographic.  The painting itself was destroyed in the Second World War.  Also included were a sizable collection of more modern works from German artists including Kirchner, Heckel, Klee, Beckman, Marc, Grosz, Dix, Schwitters, Polk, Beuys, Baselitz, Richter and Kiefer amongst others.  

MimevanOsen.jpgEgon Schiele (1890 - 1918)
Mime van Osen (1910)
Watercolor, gouache, and crayon on paper
The Ronald S. Lauder Collection.

Equally or perhaps even more impressive was Lauder’s large collection of paintings and drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, Klee, Kandinsky, Seurat, Cezanne, Degas and van Gogh and sculptures by Brancusi and Picasso as well as four of Matisse’s woman’s back series.  

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Woman with a Raven (1904)
Gouache and pastel on paper
The Ronald S. Lauder Collection, New York
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New Yor

The exhibit also included examples of medieval art and arms as well as some Old Master paintings by Albrecht Aldorfer and Quentin Massys amongst others.  Lauder himself narrated the audio tour which stressed how he made some of his extraordinary acquisitions.  One did however miss a more scholarly interpretation of this great art.  Few if any modern private collections can rival this in its depth and breadth.

The comprehensive catalogue has scholarly contributions from several authorities with a foreword by Renee Price, Director of the Neue Galerie

On view till 2 April.

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post on 4 March, 2012

This exhibit attempted to replicate Diego Rivera’s one man show that was originally created specifically for The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1931.  None of Rivera’s Mexican murals could be transported to the 1931 exhibit because they were immoveable.  So the innovative artist devised a portable platform to display his frescoes as freestanding pieces.  Working over a period of six weeks in a room specifically set aside for him at MOMA, Rivera completed his cycle of portable murals.  

The current MOMA exhibit celebrated the 80th anniversary of the original show and featured five of the eight original portable murals.  Pride of place went to the Mexican agrarian leader Zapata with a white horse, from MOMA’s own holdings.  The remaining murals had been dispersed, and are housed in public and private collections in Mexico and the USA.  MOMA managed to bring four of the remaining murals to this fascinating show.  

figzapata.jpgDiego Rivera (1886-1957)
Agrarian Leader Zapata (1931)
Fresco on reinforced cement
2011 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

Conspicuously absent were two belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art who declined to loan them for the current exhibit.  The whereabouts of the final mural is unknown.  

Although this certainly left a void, MOMA made up by exhibiting three working drawings, a prototype of the portable mural as well as several watercolors, drawings and prints from Rivera’s oeuvre.  Rivera brilliantly conveyed the social injustices of the time as well as the exploitation of the Mexican peasants. These murals are as relevant today as they were when originally executed.

Leah Dickerman, Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA and Anna Indych-López from the Art History Department, The City College of New York, have written a most informative catalogue.  

On view until 14 May. 

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post on 4 March, 2012.

The Renaissance Portrait: from Donatello to Bellini

This showstopper exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was co-organized with the Berlin State Museums. Almost sixty institutions and private collectors contributed works of art to this encyclopaedic survey comprising 160 masterpieces, which stressed the Italian contribution to this genre. Besides paintings, there was also an outstanding collection of manuscripts, sculptures, coins and medallions. Most of the major Italian artists were represented including Masaccio, one of the fathers of perspective. The exhibit focused on portraits of prominent citizens of the Italian city-states with special emphasis on Florence and Venice until the beginning of the 16th century, thus excluding Titian, the greatest portraitist of them all.
It was a real revelation to see how successfully these great artists succeeded in portraying the likenesses, emotions and personalities of their sitters. By so doing, these artists jettisoned the old established norm, which consisted of portraying an idealized human subject. For me, the highlights were the two spectacular portraits by Sandro Botticelli of the famed Florentine beauty Simonetto Vespucci, as well as those of Giuliano de Medici. Giuliano’s brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was represented by his death mask as well as a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and some medallions.

fig 1. Botticelli_Ideal Portrait of a Lady_Frankfurt.jpgFig 1:  Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1444-1510)
Ideal Portrait of a Lady (“Simonetta Vespucci”) (1475–80)
Tempera on poplar
Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

Two magnificent female portraits by the Florentine brothers, Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, also deserve special mention.

fig 2 Antonio del Pollaiuolo_Portrait of a Lady_Gemaldegalerie Berlin.jpgFig 2: Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498)
Portrait of a Lady (1460–65)
Oil and tempera on poplar panel
Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Portraits of famous families and personalities from other city-states were also on view including the d’Este family of Ferrara, the Sforzas of Milan, the Gonzagas of Mantua and the Montefeltros of Urbino. Although the most famous portrait of Federigo, Duke of Montefeltro, by Piero della Francesco from the Uffizi was absent, the Duke was represented in a full-length portrait by Pietro di Spagna together with his son and heir Guidobaldo. The final section of the exhibit was devoted to Venice with dazzling paintings by the Bellini family, Mantegna, Carpaccio, Vivarini and Antonella de Messina. 

The exhibit is accompanied by an outstanding scholarly catalogue edited by Keith Christiansen, Curator of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Stefan Weppelmann, Curator of the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

On view till 18 March.

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post on 4 March, 2012.

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