Beersheba Arts Center,
Justus Franz – pianist, conductor, Schleswig-Holstein Festival founder, organizer, educator and new music director of Israel Sinfonietta – opened the Negev orchestra’s 2013-2014 season with a program of two 19th century German masterpieces.
He led both with authority, presence and engaging musicianship: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (commemorating the orchestra’s fifth decade); and Mendelssohn’s infrequently heard Symphony No.2, “Hymn of Praise” (1840), based on biblical verses (mostly from Psalms).
Notably, Justus Franz is the first non-Jewish German music director of the Sinfonietta, or in fact, of any Israeli orchestra since the Holocaust.
Mendelssohn’s magnificent hour-long Opus 52 (in the shadow of Beethoven’s “Choral” Ninth Symphony) was composed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first book ever printed on movable type – Gutenberg’s Bible. It strives to echo biblical ethos, giving testimony to its manifold aspects of faith.
Structured in four parts, the symphony-cantata’s three brief opening instrumental movements alternate hymn-like phrases (its motto announced in the trombone), “Let all that hath breath praise the Lord,” (Psalm 150:6), with landler or waltz-like rhythms, used as metaphorical musings upon Divine salvation and humanity’s mortal journey and spiritual quest. These are followed by a massive choral cantata movement, flowing into one into another in nine sections or movements. In the center is the Lutheran Chorale “Now Thank We All Our God.”
The combined voices of three youthful, but skilled choirs (60 members): Tel Aviv Chamber Choir (Michael Shani, director), Jerusalem Academy of Music Choir (Stanley Sperber, director) and International Choir Academy Luebeck, all well prepared and coordinated, give expression to powerful emotions of psalmist doubts, supplications, prayers, trust, thanksgiving, salvation and praise.
These ensemble voices were complemented by three soloists. Two from South Africa, Linda Bukhosini, soprano and Tambe Bongani, tenor, notable for their conviction and pathos in conveying the transition from night to day, dark fear giving way to hope and light.
Capable young Israeli soprano Efrat Ashkenazi joined in the duet “Trust in the Lord.”
The essence of Justus Franz’s conducting is in the energy and enthusiasm he projects to players and singers, and exudes to the audience. Tempi are well paced and formal outlines well articulated. Clearly, the Maestro lives this repertoire, and this, in itself, is attractive and refreshing.
Nearing 70, the theme of this opening program reflects upon his identification with the deep sacred roots many feel about Israel’s biblical heritage.
As an expression of cooperation and good will, he brought along about a dozen orchestral players from his own Philharmonia of Nations Orchestra in Germany, with support from Lufthansa and the German- Israel Foundation, to supplement the Sinfonietta chamber orchestra forces.