This season the Israel Sinfonietta Beersheva sponsored an all-Brahms Festival.
It proved a boon to the city and a triumph for new music director, Justus Franz – who not only conceived the idea but led all the concerts.
Playing to almost full houses each evening, the music of Brahms requires a symphony- sized orchestra, and Franz managed to double the size of the Negev chamber orchestra with the addition of local freelance players (15) and members of his Philharmonia Orchestra of the Nations (17) in Germany. Not only that, he drew sponsorship from such German firms as JF Stiftung and Lufthansa, along with the ICL Group, Luzzato Group, Arcadia and others; and even brought along group of German tourists to fill up the usually vacant seats at the large Beersheva Arts Center.
Held on four evenings (March 8, 10, 12 and 13) we heard most of the celebrated 19th-century Germany master’s orchestral output: Four symphonies (Op. 68, 73, 90 and 98), Haydn Variations (Op. 56a), the Academic Festival (Op. 80) and Tragic Overtures (Op. 81). Franz brought energetic unity to his diverse forces and revealed deep identification with the Romantic idiom in traditional performances, marked by tonal variety, sensitive balances between winds and strings, and expressively shaped formal proportions. At the close of almost each concert the orchestra played Brahms’ Hungarian Dance in G minor for an encore.
Among solo works was the Violin Concerto (Op. 77) featuring Israeli violinist Erez Ofer, who flew in from Germany, where he serves as concertmaster of the Berlin Radio Orchestra, to deliver a near note-perfect rendition, well phrased, musically emotive. One could wish only for a more imposing tonal presence.
The Double Concerto for violin and cello (Op. 102) featured the intense and energized brothers Nitay Zori, violin, and Hillel Zori, cello, who demonstrated not only seasoned musicality but virtuoso technique. They gave an impressive presentation of Handel Passacaglia for an encore.
The Piano Concertos contained surprises.
Beersheva-born Asaf Kleinman, 27, was flown in from Europe to replace Christopher Park, who was forced to cancel for personal reasons at the last minute. As Kleinman had never played the First Piano Concerto (Op. 15) before with orchestra, all were in high-fevered expectation. None were disappointed. This native son proved himself a master of the keyboard, pounding out agitated sonorities with confident vigor and bringing pathos to tragic lyric passages. The ovation he received at the end his performance spoke for itself.
The soloist for the Second Piano Concerto (Op.83) was Ivan Rudin of Russia, who played with technical brilliance, object clarity and aristocratic elegance. He encored on piano four-hand duets playing Hungarian Dances, with Maestro Franz assisting him at the keyboard.