Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Speaking to Dr. Jörg Hansen (Germany) in Jerusalem, curator of the exhibition showing Mendelssohn's part books for his performance of J.S.Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829

Dr. J. Hansen (Eisenach.thueringer-allgemeine.de)
On a wintry March 16th 2016, I met with Dr. Jörg Hansen, curator of “Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: brought back by a Jewish boy”, an exhibit showing at the Jerusalem Theatre and coinciding with the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival. Dr. Hansen is director of the Bachhaus in Eisenach, Germany.

PH: Dr. Hansen, how did you come to direct the Bachhaus, Eisenach?

Jörg Hansen: My university studies were in Philosophy, in Logic actually, but I love Bach’s music and became involved in the Bach Society. I have been the museum director since 2005 and it has been a great honour for me.

PH: Would you like to talk about the material for the exhibit you have brought to Israel?

JH: It was in 2013 that we managed to acquire the bulk of the material for Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion of 1829, the big event of the Bach Renaissance – the starting point. We acquired 62 of the 158 music books from which the choir sang. All this material was scattered throughout the world since being used in 1854 for the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion in London. It never went back to Germany. Fortunately, Mendelssohn’s score was acquired by the Bodleian Library (Oxford, UK), but all the other material became scattered. So, that was something big for us and an exciting project for people to fund.

PH: Was it difficult to find?

JH: Well, one or two years before we acquired it, I had been trying to buy it at Sotheby’s in London. Eight of these leaflets were on auction, but our grant of 25,000 Euros was not enough to buy them all.  There were some anonymous telephone bidders who almost doubled the amount. I was very disappointed. Then, a year or two later, we received the offer to get 62 of the booklets and they are really now almost all there is. So it is good to have the material in a museum dedicated to J.S.Bach, as it represents such an important event.

PH: There are a number of Bach festivals nowadays.

JH: Yes. Actually, the Bach Festival idea comes from when Bach’s music was known only to musicians but not to the public. They came into being to promote Bach’s music and initiate Bach music societies. The Bach Society that owns our museum has been sponsoring Bach festivals since 1901, mostly in Germany, but also in other European cities such as Paris, Vienna and Brussels. It also sponsors the Eastern European Bach Academy. Bach festivals have become quite a tradition.

PH: So now we are having our first Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

JH: Yes, it is splendid to have a Bach festival here in Jerusalem and an honour for us to be a part of it. In November, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra asked us to do this exhibition, as the St. Matthew Passion was to be featured at the Bach in Jerusalem Festival. We got funding for it from the Free State of Thuringia; it has been exciting to produce it. And we have all this material coming from the big events leading up to Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew. Indeed, what led up to it comes from a tradition that was essentially that of Jewish musical families, families such as the Itziks and the Mendelssohns.

PH: Can you elaborate on this?

JH: Sarah Itzik Levy (1761-1854) maintained an active musical salon, where she developed what might be called a “J.S.Bach cult”. Among her early visitors were Mozart and Haydn; the latter’s early biographer G.A.Greisinger gave her the autograph of Haydn’s Heiligmesse, which she later passed on to her great nephew Felix Mendelssohn. An accomplished musician, she had studied harpsichord with Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. As W.F.Bach’s main student in Berlin, it was Sarah who actively promoted music of the Bach family.

Sarah Levy’s sister, Bella Salomon (1749-1824) was taught music by Bach’s student Johann Philipp Kirnberger. One of the first to recognize the importance of the Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, (Bach’s keyboard music had been performed regularly since 1802) she sent a copy of the work to her grandson Felix Mendelssohn in 1823. Six years later he produced the performance.  Without that gift to her grandson and Mendelssohn’s momentous performance, there might not have existed a Bach House or Bach festivals in Israel or anywhere else.

PH: Can you tell me about the scores in the glass cabinet?

JH: Yes. I first saw a handful of them in an exhibition at the Mendelssohn House and was deeply touched that they still existed. The interesting thing is that they were copied from the score Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn’s grandmother, had given Felix when he was just 14 years old (1823). With Bach’s sacred music no longer performed, she asked the owner of Bach’s own score – a collector from Hamburg then living in Berlin and whom she had met a number of times – for a copy. So what we see here is a copy of Bach’s 1736 autograph – the parts used in 1829 and they were the start of Mendelssohn’s almost-obsession with Bach and was the incentive to performing the work again in 1829, for the first time after Bach’s death.

PH: Whose handwriting is this?

JH: That of Mendelssohn’s fellow students - students of the Singakademie (where it was performed); they have now almost all been identified. Having been a singer myself, it was so interesting to see the singers’ personal pencil markings, such as things they underlined.  Changes were made by Mendelssohn himself for the performance in 1829, such as “corrections” to the harmony of a chord and inserting the BACH motif, things a 20-year-old would do. Mendelssohn also decided the chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (When I once must depart) be sung unaccompanied, as this would make it more dramatic. If you look here, you will see he has changed Bach’s major chord to a minor chord to be more effective in this such sorrowful piece. These choral parts were then taken to Leipzig in 1843, where Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion, this time with the St. Thomas Choir. A Bach monument was erected there, still standing today (unlike the Mendelssohn monument, which was pulled down in 1939). Then, in 1854, these same parts were taken to London for the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion there.

PH: Whose picture do we see here?

JH: This is a recently-found portrait of Bella Salomon. It is a reproduction. The portrait itself is tiny and painted on ivory; it was found in a drawer by a cousin of the current Mendelssohn family.  It is a wonderful painting of Bella. Bella Salomon was a staunch Jewess and disowned her own son when he converted to Christianity; he had been baptised in a moment of hasty decision in 1822, then adopting the name of Bartholdy. Felix Mendelssohn was baptized at age 7 and his parents kept the event secret from Bella for fear she would cut off relations from him, too. In honour of his philosopher grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, Felix did not want to give up the name of Mendelssohn, despite the fact that his father insisted Felix would never really be considered a Christian if called Mendelssohn. All this reflects the difficulties under which Jews were living at the time and the limited career opportunities available to them as Jews. But Bella Salomon and her sister did not go along with the idea of conversion: they donated a lot of money to the Jewish education system. Essentially, the whole Jewish social system was run by donations from wealthier people of the community.

PH: An interesting map here.

JH: It is a 1592 map of the world in the form of a clover leaf, with the continents placed around the city of Jerusalem. It appears in “Travel Book to the Holy Land”, a book of a number of curious maps like this one. The interesting thing is that Bach probably had in his own library the old folio format copy of this book of strange maps. In his private library he also had Flavius Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” and “Judaism and the Stubborn Unbelief” (which, incidentally makes reference to Jewish traditions, to the Talmud and Kabbala), later prompting Nazi musicologist Karl Hasse to stipulate Bach’s “anti-Semitism”, although we cannot know whether Bach had even read the book. Bach, however, would never have met a Jew.  

PH: And this building?

JH: It is the Berlin Singakademie, which saw the famous 1829 re-performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Bella’s sister was a pianist there for more than 20 years, where the Mendelssohn family also had social- and professional connections with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who had taught Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.  Zelter considered Bach’s religious works too outdated, too priestly for contemporary ears, but he did direct further performances of the St. Matthew Passion in Germany when Mendelssohn was in England. 

PH: And the bust of Bach here?

JH: It is of a correction. There are not many of the original casts left. And here is one of Mendelssohn.

PH: And the two video films?

JH: One explains the St. Matthew Passion, the story of its rediscovery, the way Bach composed it, how it differs from how the St. John Passion was written: the St. Matthew lays emphasis on sacrifice and there is commentary throughout, making it a more poetic work than the St. John. 

The other screen shows a short video dealing with the question of whether Bach’s Passions are anti-Semitic, a strange question I would say, considering the fact that Bach would not have ever met a Jew.  But the question has been asked constantly since 1941. This may have been sparked by Bach’s dramatically operatic moments of fury in these works. However, if you look at the arias, they impart the message of compassion. The St. Matthew Passion gives reflexion on individual guilt and salvation.

PH: Dr. Hansen, thank you so much for your time and so much fascinating information.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Talking to young Russian-born virtuoso violinist Marianna Vasileva

Marianna Vasileva (photo:Maxim Reider)

On February 6th 2016 I met with 28-year-old violinist Marianna Vasileva (Russia-Israel) at the Dan Eilat Hotel, where she performed in two of the concerts of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Ms. Vasileva took her first violin lessons with her father, later studying with such prominent teachers as Vladimir Ovcharek (St. Petersburg), Zakhar Bron (Cologne) and Dora Schwarzberg (Vienna). She has won prizes in several international competitions, including the prestigious Henryk Wieniaski Violin Competition and the Prague Spring International Music Competition. In addition to her international performing career, Ms. Vasileva holds master classes and is currently teaching at the Music Academy in Madrid. She has over 40 concertos to her repertoire.
PH: Where were you born?

Marianna Vasileva: I was born in St. Petersburg to a family of musicians. My father is a violinist and my mother is a pianist.

PH: What is your earliest musical memory?
MV: As a small girl, my eyes, reaching the level of the piano keys, watched my mother’s fingers. I seemed to understand how the piano sound was produced, but I did not understand how my father produced the sound on the violin. When I was alone at home I tried to imitate them. But the first instrument I touched was the piano and I tried to improvise something. The first violin pieces with which I became familiar were the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and the Chaconne from J.S.Bach’s Partita no.2 in d-minor. Those works were the beginning of my childhood musical memories.

PH: Did you start your early musical training with the violin?

 MV: Yes. Since my father was my first teacher it was hard work right from the start at the age of four or five and, fortunately, I was already practising in a professional manner – for a few hours a day, with only around one hour free for me to take a walk and twenty minutes to watch cartoons. My father was a good teacher for a child.
PH: Did you attend a music school?

MV: Yes, at the age of seven I started attending a special music school which was under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This meant that children at the school were taught by professors of the Conservatory.
PH: What about higher studies?

 MV: After finishing school, I then completed studies at the Conservatory itself, but, by the age of eleven, I was already also studying with Dora Schwarzberg at the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst (University of Music and Performing Arts) in Vienna. From the age of 17 or 18, I studied with Prof. Zakhar Bron at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz (The Cologne University of Music) in Germany. So, from age 11, I was actually studying in two conservatories at any one time.

 PH: When did you start performing?
MV: My first concert was at the age of eight. At age ten I won my first international competition. That was in Russia. In that year I made my solo debut playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with orchestras in Russia and in Germany. 

PH: I believe you have immigrated to Israel.
MV: Yes. I came to live in Israel in May, but I am always traveling. Still, I am happy to have the opportunity to spend time here in Israel. I am in love with this country and feel at home here. I feel at home only in Russia and in Israel.

PH: So you are busy with your international concert schedule.

MV: Yes, very busy. For example, I recently played a concert in Palermo with the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra. That was a day before I arrived in Eilat! I also have to be in Madrid frequently to teach my students at the Music Academy.
PH: As a performer, how would you classify yourself – as a soloist, recitalist, chamber musician?

 MV: I am a soloist, but really enjoy playing chamber music as well. I find playing trios and quartets most pleasurable. And sonatas, of course, are chamber music, too.
PH: Do you have any chamber music ensembles you play with regularly?

MV: Unfortunately not, but I have pianists in different countries with whom I like to perform. Here in Israel, for example, I like playing with Tal-Haim Samnon.
PH: How would you sum up your performance schedule of the last year?

MV: It was taken up with performances with orchestras and with my concerts of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. That is how it turned out. Maybe next year will be completely different.
PH: Would you like to mention any special projects in which you are involved?

 MV: Yes. The first Violin Festival in Russia, in St. Petersburg, a fantastic festival. Next season, the concerts will not only be in St. Petersburg, but in Moscow and other big Russian cities. There are plans to have some of the festival events outside of Russia. I opened this year’s festival with my performance of the Paganini Caprices in the large St. Petersburg concert hall and I will close the festival on March 2nd with a program of “The Eight Seasons” - Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”. I will be the soloist and the orchestra will play without a conductor. Following a week that I will spend with my students here, who will be coming here from different countries, I will travel to St. Petersburg for rehearsals with the St. Petersburg Academy Orchestra, with whom I will be performing the Eight Seasons concert.
PH: Will this be the first time you perform the Piazzolla work?

MV: No. The last time I played it was in Poland with the Silesian Chamber Orchestra.

PH: Do you record?
MV: Yes. I have recorded a CD with Dmitry Kogan, Leonid Kogan’s grandson. It consists of repertoire for two violins – the Ysaÿe Sonata for two violins, a Telemann Canonic Sonata and Boccherini on the Delos label. We tried to imitate the spirit of Dmitry’s grandparents – Leonid Kogan and Elizabeth Gilels. They played these works many, many years ago.  Many recordings of my playing appear on the Internet.

 PH: When you play Baroque music, do you play without vibrato?
MV: No. We are in the 21st century and I play on a modern violin. I don’t play a Baroque violin or with a Baroque bow, neither am I playing in Baroque acoustics. Everyone should imagine how this music would have sounded, but it is always a compromise. One needs to create the Baroque atmosphere but to bring it in line with our times.

PH: Do you write music?

MV: Writing music takes a lot of time. At the moment I am not writing music, but perhaps in the future.
PH: Do you write your own cadenzas?

MV: Yes.
PH: How do you find Israeli audiences?

MV: Warm. For me it is very comfortable and relaxing to perform here. I enjoy having this “conversation” with the public. I was very thrilled seeing such a large audience this morning when I played the Paganini “Caprices”, possibly because hearing this work is rare. The audience seemed made up mostly of people who are not musicians and I can imagine how difficult it must be for non-musicians to listen to a program as serious and difficult as the 24 Caprices.
PH: How do you view the work?

 MV: It is really folk music. Paganini wrote what he heard around him. There are some simple things, like the Scottish bagpipes – but they are still not easy and the work goes on for more than one and a half hours. I really appreciated the warmth I felt from the public today.

PH: How long have you been working on the Paganini Caprices?
MV: Two years, but I am only at the beginning. These pieces are a project for one’s whole life!

PH: Well, playing all 24 Caprices is about as ambitious as it gets!

MV: There are very few artists who have done it. It was violinist Shlomo Mintz who told me I should do it!
PH: What other challenging works would you like to have in your repertoire?

 MV: All of J.S.Bach’s sonatas and partitas and all of Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonatas. The latter may be my next project. It is fantastic music and very interesting.
PH: What music are you mostly enjoying at the moment?

MV: Repertoire is like a rainbow. I am in love with all the works I am presently playing. It is impossible to play and understand music without being in love with it…even contemporary music. I understand some composers better than others, but it is a question of how fast I will recognize the idea. For example, I sense Shostakovich’s music immediately…it is in my blood. With a composer like Brahms – I love his music very much – it will take some time to get into – it is not immediate. I am not willing to perform music on stage before I am deeply involved with the composer.
PH: What about contemporary and new music?

MV: I do play it sometimes, but I am not such a big fan of contemporary music. There are nice pieces, but this, unfortunately, is rare. Of course, we can sometimes find some very interesting contemporary pieces. But did you see the Concerto for ping pong and orchestra on the Internet?
PH: No. So how will the concert scene survive?

MV: I know we are not at a “golden age” of music at the moment, but I am sure that will return – it always comes in waves. But everyone is thinking of how to survive, how to bring new public to the halls. I am really sure that classical music will survive when performed in an absolutely professional way. The great Russian artist Grigory Sikolov, one of the greatest pianists of our times, is such an artist, and he always plays to full houses. 
PH: When you are not busy with your career what interests you?

MV: I love to sing Russian romances. However, I do not have much free time.

PH: Marianna Vasileva, many thanks for your time and sharing your experience and thoughts.