Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Alei Gefen Chorus, conductor Eli Gefen

Keren Telfed (R.A.) in association with Telfed – South African Zionist Federation (Israel) - held its annual Telfed Volunteer Awards ceremony at the Davey Family Fine Arts Auditorium of the American International School in Even Yehuda January 2nd 2010. It was an evening of recognition of the remarkable volunteer work and selflessness of members of the South African community in Israel, a tribute to those people who devote time and energy to helping South African immigrants and to Israeli society in general.

The Alei Gefen Chorus, conducted by its musical director Eli Gefen and with Anna Koroch at the piano, performed a program of songs. Founded in 1990 by Eli Gefen, the 22-member-strong choir consists largely of singers from the Former Soviet Union and performs widely in Israel and in Europe. With a repertoire including much devotional music, the choir sees its aim as using music as a means to tolerance and reconciliation between faiths.

Veteran Israeli journalist Freda Keet introduced the choir and its program, referring to the Alei Gefen Chorus as a musical symbol of tolerance among nations.

The program opened with Israel Goldfarb’s song “Shalom Aleichem” arranged for a cappella choir by Gil Aldema (b.1928.) Also arranged by Gil Aldema, we heard a sensitive, beautifully nuanced performance of David Zehavi’s “Eli, Eli” (words Hanna Senesh) and the traditional Sabbath song “Tsur mi shelo achalnu” (The Almighty from Whose Food we Have Eaten), the latter a mix of homophonic and contrapuntal textures, with Gefen using detached notes to bring out word rhythms. Aldema’s a cappella arrangement of “Jerusalem of Gold” by the great Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) is attractive and moves the melodic interest from voice to voice. The choir’s performance of it was delicate and introspective.

English composer John Rutter’s (b.1945) oeuvre consists mostly of choral music. His transparent writing, reflecting English- and French choral traditions of the early 20th century and influenced by American music, is direct and uncluttered, providing a clean, refreshing, accessible and communicative style, positive in message and bright in timbre. The Alei Gefen Chorus sang three of Rutter’s songs to piano accompaniment, opening with “For the Beauty of the Earth”, a joyful hymn of celebration based on a text by F.S.Pierpoint, followed by Rutter’s much-loved, gentle adaptation of the old Gaelic melody “Gaelic Blessing” presented by Gefen in pastel tones.
‘Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air to you,
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,
Deep peace of the shining stars to you…’
Gefen dedicated the choir’s performance of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” (Numbers 6,24), a poignant, meditative anthem typical of Rutter’s lucid style, to Gil’ad Shalit.

In July 1940, American composer and educator Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to write a joyful choral piece for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center. However, under the dark cloud of the war in Europe and with the fall of France, Thompson produced a very pensive 4-voiced piece. Thompson wrote of his piece “The music in my particular ‘Alleluia’ cannot be made to sound joyous…. It is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written…” Gefen’s reading of the piece is fragile and delicately shaped; he takes his singers through the dynamic developments and emotional plot of this very fine piece, slowly building it up to its glorious climax and ending with the humility and resignation of the “Amen”. Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” was surely a high point of the evening’s concert.

In a very different vein, we heard P.I.Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) Da Ispravitsia (Let My Prayer Arise), sung in Russian. Lending charm to the evening’s program, the piece moves back and forward from women’s voices only to mixed choir.

The Jewish composer, conductor and cantor Louis Lewandowsky (1821-1894), was born in Poland but spent most of his life in Germany. His 4-part settings of prayers and sacred texts formed a new genre of Ashkenazi synagogue music, becoming important for its direct appeal to congregations. Lewandowsky’s “Hallelujah” (c.1871) was given an uplifting and joyful performance by the choir.

“Tabernacle of Peace” by Cantor David Grosz, Eli Gefen’s father, has an interesting story behind it. One of Vienna’s finest cantors of the time, David Grosz was captured by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz. A few years ago, a research trust in Vienna located Gefen and mailed the original score of the song to him. This moving piece for cantor and mixed choir, typical of central European synagogue works, is now sung at every concert the Alei Gefen Chorus performs. In this performance, the soloist (cantor) was Vladimir Linetsky. Weaving his solo in between choral sections, his singing of it was expressive and spiritual.

The Alei Gefen Chorus’ program was varied and rich; their performance was a celebration of the expressive quality and delicacy of the human voice.

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