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Combinations such as this don't come through town too often, so it was both a curiosity and a chance to hear some very interesting repertoire when the Jerusalem Lyric Trio played in Durham on November 11. The concert took place at the new sanctuary of Judea Reform Congregation on Cornwallis Road and was co-sponsored by Duke Performances. The lineup of this unique trio is Amalia Ishak, soprano, Wendy Eisler-Kashy, flute, and Allan Sternfield, piano. They form an ensemble from Israel that highlights the religious and cultural heritage of the Jewish people in its performances. Their repertoire includes works inspired by biblical texts, the holy city of Jerusalem, the Holocaust and traditional songs sung in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino.
There was a nice turnout in a lovely, new building where the arrangement of the sanctuary put the performers up close and personal. They began literally "in the beginning" as they performed Max Stern's Bereshit, which recreates the biblical account of the seven days of creation. This is certainly not a new subject for musical compositions, but this work had an especially spiritual feel to it, and the performance by the three musicians conveyed its an air of mystery and timelessness.
The members of this trio are conservatory trained and thoroughly seasoned professionals, so it is no surprise that they do not limit themselves completely to works dealing in biblical texts or Jewish themes. In fact, the remainder of the first half consisted of works by the greatest French composers of the late 19th and early 20th century. Eisler-Kashy showed off her considerable talents in the Fantasy by Gabriel Fauré.
It was around this time that a very significant defect in the evening's presentation became apparent, and it reached it is nadir during Sternfield's solo performance of several movements from Estampes, by Claude Debussy. He is an excellent pianist who has an affinity for this delicate music, but the instrument he was forced to play could not handle what the music required. We are so used to taking for granted the sound of excellent grand pianos that we hardly give them a thought until we are forced to hear a world-class ensemble perform with a tinny, badly registered, upright spinet. I realize that most churches and synagogues do not need expensive grand pianos, and some cannot afford them, but since Duke Performances sponsored the Jerusalem Lyric Trio, one would think that a decent instrument could have been brought in for the concert. In addition to the greatly inferior sound of the piano that was used, the look of this small upright piano for such demanding and profound music was almost comical.
For an ensemble of this kind, the singer cannot be a shrinking violet, and Ishak could never be accused of such a thing. During the evening she sang in a convincing and natural manner in Yiddish, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. More than that, she lived the lyrics and was incredibly expressive, and some might even say she was flamboyant.
The confluence of human and divine love was explored and expressed in the opening selection of the second half. Yishakeyni (Sweeter than Wine) was written for the trio by Meira Warshauer, who was in attendance and gave an introduction to the work. It is a lovely impressionistic-type piece that made me want to search out more compositions of this talented woman, currently on the music faculty of Columbia College in South Carolina.
The nicely-balanced second half began with a lively set of Six Israeli Dances for piano by Chaim Alexander followed by an unaccompanied work for flute. The remainder of the set displayed the previously-mentioned dramatic skills of the soprano. Sometimes good actors can convey the essence of the story even if they are speaking in a language you don't understand. This was the case with Ishak as she ranged from ribald Judeo-Spanish romances to well-known Yiddish songs to the grand finale – a tear-jerking rendition of "Jerusalem of Gold" by Naomi Shemer.