Saturday, June 4, 2011

Maestro Gabor Hollerung conducts the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble in an evening of "Gypsy Songs"

Concert no.5 of the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s Vocal Experience series was titled “Gypsy Songs”. Conducting the concert was visiting Hungarian conductor Gabor Hollerung. This writer attended the concert May 30th at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Hasha’ananim.

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble was established in 1993 by Yuval Ben-Ozer, its musical director. Ben-Ozer, a much sought-after conductor in Israel and abroad, also runs management workshops for business organizations.One of the finest ensembles in Israel,the NIVE's members are professional singers, its repertoire spanning from music of the Middle Ages to contemporary music, including the premiering new works of Israeli composers. The ensemble records, has performed at the Israel Festival and in festivals in Europe and Korea and has won prizes at international choral competitions. The NIVE appears with Israeli orchestras and works with leading conductors, among them, Frieder Bernius, Anthony Rooley and Andrew Parrott.

Gabor Hollerung (b.Budapest, 1954) has been conductor of the Dohnanyi Orchestra Budafok since 1989 and musical director of the Budapest Academic Choral Society since 1980, the latter receiving the “Choir of the World” title in Llangollen (Wales.) Maestro Hollerung is deeply involved in the organization of worldwide choral events and competitions – he is a musical director of “Musica Mundi”, the “Interkultur” International Music Competitions Foundation and of the “Choir Olympics”. Hollerung trains conductors, one of his most interesting projects being the annual conductors’ workshop he directs in Taipei (Taiwan.) Maestro Hollerung is no new face on the Israeli concert scene, having conducted the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tel Aviv Philharmonia Singers.

Pianist Irit Rub accompanied the NIVE. As soloist and chamber music player, Ms. Rub performs in Israel and further afield. She is a member of the “Idan” Trio; she performs with flautist Yossi Arnheim, also accompanying singer-actor David Sebba in his own parody on the history of voice and opera show “Mad About Opera”.

In “Gypsy Songs” we heard choral works, all of which were influenced by gypsy music. Stories, poetry and songs depicting the lives of gypsies abound in Romantic (and earlier) literature, their influence evident in music, with the Romantic spirit attracted to the mysticism, nature and the exotic elements of the gypsy lifestyle. The program opened with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) “Zigeunerleben” (Gypsy Life.) Schumann’s interest gypsy lifestyle came from reading Emanuel Geibel’s “Gypsy Poems”, this finding expression in his “Zigeunerleben” opus 29 no.3. Composed in 1840, the composer’s “song year”, it was scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices with piano accompaniment but is now commonly performed by choirs. We heard it sung by the choir, with small solos performed by Shirel Gidekel, Hadas Gur, Tal Koch and Ronen Ravid. The work, not actually gypsy music, nevertheless set the scene and created the atmosphere that would pervade the evening’s program.
‘In the shadows of the forest, among the beech trees,
Something moves and rustles and whispers all at once.
Flames are flickering, their glow dances
Around colorful figures, around leaves and rocks;
It is the roaming band of gypsies
With flashing eyes and waving hair…’

This was followed by Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) eleven “Zigeunerlieder” (Gypsy Songs) opus 103, composed in 1887 to texts of Hungarian folk songs translated into German by the composer’s friend Hugo Conrat. Brahms learned about gypsy music from Hungarian violinist Eduard Hofmann (Remenyi), accompanying him on a concert tour, where he learned to play “alla zingarese” (in gypsy style.) Although beginning each song on the downbeat (in keeping with the Hungarian language), Brahms decides against using the scales found in gypsy music. Yet, the work is Hungarian in spirit. Hollerung peppers it with fast tempi, hearty, strident, folksy moments, light textures and songs of appealing, reflective tenderness; all these serve to describe flirting and love, rejection and parting, accompanied with poignant descriptive scenes. Irit Rub was attentive to each nuance.

We heard the women members of the NIVC, with Rub at the piano, in seven of Antonin Dvorak’s (1841-1904) Moravian Duets opus 32, works that won the composer much success, launching his international career and making him a hero in the eyes of his countrymen. In 1877, Dvorak had submitted opus 29 and 32 for an Austrian composers’ competition and was awarded the prize of 600 florins. Brahms, (Dvorak’s mentor) a member of the judging committee, wrote to publisher Fritz Simrock that the songs “seem to me so perfectly charming they should be a practical publishing venture.” Dvorak was unhappy about Simrock publishing the titles in German. An ardent nationalist, he wished the works to be performed in the original Czech dialect of Moravian. In some of the songs, the composer had discarded the original folk melodies, devising his own. The NIVC ladies contended with the Moravian text, their performance rife with changing emotions, folk dance rhythms and dialogue, creating a colorful (at times, almost visual) description of the daily joys and sorrows of small town life. These small, charming vignettes are sumptuously enriched by the piano accompaniment.

The choir performed two a cappella songs of Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and pioneer of music education pioneer Zoltan Kodaly. In 1925, Kodaly composed two songs for a Budapest boys’ choir, one of them being “Turot eszik a cigany” (See the Gypsies Munching Cheese). Although the composer had written choral music previously, this was a significant point in his career, with choral music becoming the main genre of his oeuvre. The NIVC produced the wild rhythms of this song, enforcing them with percussive consonants and spicing them with many accents. In “Esti Dal” (Evening Song) (1938), the sopranos present most of the plaintive, introspective melody, with smooth background parts moving in lush harmonies provided by the other voices. The singers recreate Kodaly’s intimate mood piece, evoking the wonder, peace and richness of the night sky.
‘As I lie down for the night by the edge of the woods,
I pull a blanket up under my chin.
I put my hands together,
Thus imploring you, my good Lord

My Lord, grant me a place to stay,
For I’ve grown tired of wandering,
Of hiding,
Of living in a foreign land…’(Translation: Michael Kaulkin.)

Composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok’s (1881-1945) Four Slovak Folksongs, unaltered settings of the songs, the melodies mostly in the upper voice, were arranged for mixed choir and piano in 1916. Using little counterpoint, the composer harmonized the songs simply and mostly note for note or not at all. They open with the delicate “Wedding Song from Poniky”, sensitively presented by the choir and Rub; it is a dialogue between mother and daughter; its text reveals that the daughter is to be sent away to marry a cruel man in a foreign country. Following the “Song of the Hay Harvesters”, featuring irregular rhythmic meters, the “Song from Medzibrod” suggests dance rhythms, while the fourth, “Dancing Song from Poniky” evokes drones and peasant bagpipes.

Introducing the last work of the evening, Maestro Hollerung informed the audience that Zoltan Kodaly’s “Kallai Kettos” (1950) (Kallo’s Double Dance) – representing the tradition of singing and dancing together - was the only authentic gypsy music on the program, and that the Irit Rub would have the task of representing a virtuosic gypsy orchestra always ready to improvise! The title of the work derives from Nagykallo, a town in northeast Hungary, where the dance originated during Turkish occupation. Hollerung, conducting both choir and pianist, presented the audience with a colorful rendering of music rooted in Hungarian tradition – a varied canvas of sentimental melodies, inebriating rhythms, vast dynamic contrasts and the onomatopoeic use of repeated syllables.

This was a very different and refreshing choral concert on the Israeli concert scene. Yuval Ben-Ozer is original and daring in his demands and choice of repertoire; his carefully selected singers are ready for the challenge. Irit Rub’s accompaniments added pleasure and support. Maestro Hollering arrived in Israel to find the NIVE well prepared for his pre-concert rehearsals. It is no mean feat for Israelis to sing a concert in German, Hungarian, Moravian Czech and Slovenian. The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s mixed and richly colored signature timbre is especially suited to this type of music. The audience at the Jerusalem Music Centre was well entertained.

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