Sunday, 27 January 2013

Ella Milch-Sheriff's Songs of Love

Further to my earlier post on Israeli classical music, Looking beyond Dana International..., where we met such eloquent composers as Paul Ben-Haim, Betty Olivero and Noam Sheriff, the richness of the classical music tradition in Israel calls for a few follow-up posts, beginning today with a post about Ella Milch-Sheriff

Ella, born in Haifa in 1954 and married to Noam Sheriff, writes accessible modern music, some way removed from the international avant-garde. Her music is rich and direct in its appeal. I hope you will take to her music as enthusiastically as I have.

As a starting point, please try her Piano Concerto of 2008. It's in the traditional three movements and is, just as traditionally, a virtuoso showpiece. Fans of Samuel Barber's music will, perhaps, recognise a kindred spirit. The first movement, Play, Memory, is full of happy and vivacious writing but also has lyrical moments  - as if the playful scenes are being recalled fondly through older, reflective eyes. I detect hints of Prokofiev and Ravel. The second movement, In Memoriam, is as poignant as the sadder pages of Elgar and Mahler and speaks through their kind of expressive, late-Romantic string writing and its piano equivalent. It was apparently written as a prayer for her mother and is both beautiful and touching. The third movement E-motion is more in keeping with the lively, rhythmic manner of the first movement but at it nears its close a surge of lyrical expressiveness re-enters the concerto and sweeps it to an emotional climax before its dogged closing bars. This piece would be a sure-fire hit if performed during a BBC Prom concert. 

Ella Milch-Sheriff is best known, I believe, for her vocal music. She has written pop music and art music. Something of that pop strain can be heard, along with Israeli folk music, in her "musical fantasy based on 'The Song of Solomon'", Dark Am I - her appealing cycle for voices and ensemble paying loving tribute to the universal idea of 'love' (and dedicated to her own true love, her husband Noam). Written for a specific soprano, Keren Hadar, who seems to have something of the charismatic presence of Berio's muse Cathy Berberian, the extracts from the work I've heard strike me as having much in common with Berio's popular Folk Songs - just sample the infectious Dark Am I or the truly ravishing Mio Diletto (you really must try this one!) and compare them with the Berio songs. (Further extracts here, here and here). This would go down a storm at a late-night BBC Prom concert. 

The harrowing wartime experiences of her father, Dr. Baruch Milch, form the basis of her 2003 cantata Can Heaven be Void? for mezzo-soprano, narrator and orchestra. The libretto draws from her father memoirs (not published until after his death in 1989), interspersing them with poems by Paul Celan. There is something of Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw about this deeply moving piece, including the mingling of song and speech. (If you're an English-speaker it is a must to watch this performance whilst reading the English translation of the libretto.). It is a work that speaks simply and truthfully and should be heard far and wide. 

The vibrancy of modern Tel Aviv, as well as a variety of other moods, including less happy ones, come to our ears musically in Ella's Night's End Anthem (see also Pts. 2 & 3) for two sopranos, children's choir and orchestra. The captivating colours of the composer's orchestration (including lots of percussion), the catchiness of the rhythms and the beautiful vocal writing all make Night's End Anthem a treat for the listener. Ella Milch-Sheriff sure knows how to communicate. Audiences the world over (well, except in certain countries!) would absolutely love this piece - if they got to hear it. 

There's so much Israeli classical music that seems to by-pass us in the United Kingdom. We need to hear much more of it.

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