Friday, June 8, 2012

The Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoka at the 2012 Israel Festival

As one of the events of the 2012 Israel Festival, the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoca, supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute Tel Aviv, performed a concert of a cappella music June 2nd at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. The Cluj Philharmonic Choir, founded in 1972, no newcomer to Israeli concert halls, has been directed by Maestro Cornel Groza since 1986.

The choir, numbering some 50 singers, performed a variety of short works, ranging from Baroque repertoire to contemporary music. Of the secular pieces, we heard Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “In These Delightful Pleasant Groves” from “The Libertine”, not as light-of-foot and crisp as might suit the English madrigal style. Moving comfortably into the realm of sacred music, the choir captured the smooth, dramatic expression of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714-1787) “De Profundis” (Psalm 129), then performing the passionate “Rejoice, O Virgin” from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” opus 37 (1915), the latter sung in church Slavonic, its wide dynamic-, harmonic- and vocal range (low bass notes, in particular) creating the uplifting grandeur of homophonic Russian Orthodox singing. Hungarian composer Lajos Bárdos (1899-1986) was a pupil of Zoltán Kodály; influenced by Kodály, Bárdos was instrumental in the development of choral singing in Hungary, the singing of folk songs and publishing of Hungarian choral music. In Bárdos’ setting of “Libera me” (Deliver me) from his Requiem (1935), the Cluj Choir gave close attention to the work’s layering, contrasts and accents, its dissonances and glissandos to depict fear of the Day of Judgment:
‘…I am made to tremble and I fear
Till the judgment be upon us and the coming wrath:
When the heavens and earth shall be shaken…’
The mood changes, becoming more soothing, the music more harmonious in the final words:
‘…let light perpetual shine upon them.’
In Felix Mendelssohn’s eight-part (single choir) German setting of Psalm 43 “Richte mich Gott” (Judge Me O God), one of Mendelssohn’s group of three unaccompanied Psalm settings, the stern words sung by the men are contrasted with gentle harmonies sung by the women, then moving into the more optimistic realm of F major, preparing the listener for the final chorale. The Cluj singers drew on their palette of lush, Romantic timbres, giving their singing a warm, glowing color. No less convincing was Groza’s reading of American composer Randall Thompson’s “Ye Shall Have a Song” from “The Peaceable Kingdom” of 1935 (inspired by the early American preacher and painter Edward Hicks), its imitation and word-painting, its smoothness and haunting, chordal elements and melodic lines weaving scintillating and subtle reverence throughout.

Works of Romanian composers were of particular interest, most of which were unfamiliar to local audiences. From the Cluj-Napoca region, Sigismund Toduţă (1908-1991) refers to Gregorian- and Byzantine musical elements in his music. The melismatic “Archaisme” (Archaisms) (1942), to a text by Mihai Celarianu narrating the artist’s dialogue with God, bristles with perfect intervals, gentle clusters, insistent ostinatos, jagged utterances and the clear outlining of key words. One of Romania’s most prominent modern composers, Vasile Herman (1929-2010), was a member of faculty of the Cluj Conservatory. We heard numbers 1 and 3 of his “Verses of Longing” (1971), the fabric of which comprises a mix of definite- and indefinite pitches, “falling” clusters, effects – instrumental, speech and otherwise – declamation and imitation. The Cluj Choir’s performance of the work was articulate and well crafted. Another composer important for his synthesis of concert music with folk-traditional music and village ritual is Tudor Jarda (1922-2007), whose “Bride’s Song and Dance” displayed an interesting use of choral textures, the choir using word sounds as a textural, percussive device. Also excellently performed – a colorful canvas of Romanian songs – was Dariu Pop’s (1887-1965) "Choral Suite from Tara Oaşului" (a northern region of Romania), presenting a number of songs and dance rhythms in regional modes, using folk lyrics, whimsical instrumental effects and some touching, nostalgic solos. Gheorghe Dango’s (1905-1959) music focuses largely on that of the Prahova County. “Sârba pe loc”, representing the Eastern European Sârba dance, was peppered with the agility of fast-flowing syllables. György Orbán (b.1947) is a Hungarian of Romanian origin. Picturing the devil’s temptations, “Daemon Irrepit Callidus”, to a text by an anonymous 17th century poet, the composer makes unique use of syllables and other textural devices to create a feisty chromatic, sometimes jazzy soundscape:
‘The devil sneaks expertly amid praise, song and dance…
Poor, passionate, undisciplined, frustrated devil.’

The program included sensitively performed arrangements of two Afro-American spirituals - Jester Hairston’s (1901-2000) “Elijah Rock” and William L. Dawson’s (1899-1980) “Soon Ah Will Be Done”. The choir also sang two Hebrew songs: Adrian Pop’s skilful and harmonically fragrant arrangements of Joseph Jacobson’s “And Judea shall be inhabited forever” (Joel 4:20) and Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”.

Following the concert, I had the opportunity of exchanging a few words with Maestro Cornel Groza, many of whose concerts over the last 26 years of his direction of the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoka have been performed in Israel. Maestro Groza appreciates Israeli concert audiences and stresses the choir’s great pleasure to be singing in Israel. He also spoke of the difficulties of putting together a program for an audience of such a different culture; for this reason, he chooses to “mixes cultures” , as in the above-discussed concert, which included works by German-, American-, English-, Israeli- and Romanian composers. In Groza’s words “We try to cover different areas and kinds of music”. Another aim of the choir is to present some of the jewels of Romanian choral repertoire (and not necessarily the better-known works) placing emphasis on the rich tradition of Romanian folklore. All the singers in the choir are professional, most of them long-standing members. Rehearsals run for three to four hours Monday to Friday. Many of the members also work as music teachers. There is much to learn from the excellence and professionalism of the Cluj Choir. Their singing, blended, confident and fresh, inspired and delighted Israel Festival audiences.

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