Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Eternal Light" - Franz Herzog (Austria) conducts the Israel Vocal Ensemble in a program joined by saxophonist Eyal Aizik

Maestro Franz Herzog (photo: Peter Purgar)

“Eternal Light” was the title of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s recent concert directed by guest conductor Franz M. Herzog (Austria). Also taking part in the event was saxophonist Eyal Aizik. This writer attended the concert at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on March 2nd, 2017.

Born in 1962, conductor, composer and music educationalist Franz M. Herzog today serves as artistic director of the Vocalforum Graz (chamber choir) and was founder and chief conductor of the Cantanima, a Styrian youth choir (2004-2013). He is currently head of choral conducting at the Johann Joseph Fux Conservatory (Graz) and lecturer at the Graz University of Music and Performing Arts. As a composer, his oeuvre largely focuses on choral- and vocal music. This was his first Israeli concert tour.

Established in 1993 by Yuval Benozer, who continues to serve as its music director, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, comprising professional singers, is among Israel’s finest choral chamber choirs. With its own concert series, the IVE performs in major Israeli concert venues, also taking part in local festivals and overseas. The ensemble’s repertoire ranges from medieval to the most contemporary of works; it has also recorded film music. The Israel Vocal Ensemble is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Mif’al Hapais and private donors.

“Eternal Light”, a program of mostly European pieces, many sacred and (almost all)  a-cappella from the Renaissance through Romantic music to that of the 21st century, took the listener on a spiritual journey through the course of a day, starting out in the sparkling light of daybreak. The program opened with the Lenten hymn “Christe, qui lux es et dies” (O Christ who are light and day) by Robert White (1538-1574), a sophisticated, imitative piece, its polyphonic verses built around the chant.  Via the densely-interwoven textures and descriptive effects of György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “Morning”, we were presented with a performance of young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s (b.1978) stunning spiritual- and richly blended 8-voiced “O magnum mysterium”, with saxophonist Eyal Aizik’s mellifluous playing of phrases weaving into-, complementing- and conforming with the work’s vocal lines.

Of great interest to singers and audience alike were two works of Franz Herzog himself, their first Israeli performances. We heard the Kyrie and Gloria of his Missa “Lux caelestis” (2004), a richly-coloured multi-dimensional canvas of ostinati creating vital rhythms, of clusters, the enmeshment of seconds and contrasts between lighter and darker timbres - music of excitement and conviction. “Laudato si, mi Signore” (2011) uses a text from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun of 1224 and in the original Umbrian dialect of Italian.  Here, Herzog’s writing threads his evocative use of syllables and words effectively with the natural beauty of voices in a gripping kaleidoscope of lush, introverted textures then spiralling into powerful grandeur, expressive of the text’s message of both suffering and forgiveness.

An interesting reflection on the text of Heinrich Schütz’ exquisite motet “Herr, nun lässest Du deiner Diener” (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace) from the burial service for Prince Heinrich von Reuss, a Dresden nobleman, was the division into a low 5-part choir and a smaller ensemble of two sopranos and bass and set apart. In the latter, the bass represented the soul in bliss, with the sopranos as two seraphim. With each choir singing a different text, the IVE singers highlighted the work’s extraordinary texture in unforced singing and fine projection of words, even at moments when both texts were intertwined.

Another fascinating motet was Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 43 (opus 78 No.2) (1844), its five double verses divided into four sections, with basses and tenors singing the melody in unison against sopranos and altos in harmony, then moving into “O send your light and your truth” soaring into eight-part harmony. The work concludes with the composer (texturally and musically) revisiting the cry of suffering from his setting of Psalm 42, a heartrending personal gesture. Rich in Romantic harmonies, Edvard Grieg’s “Ave, maris stella” (Hail, star of the sea) was given a personal and dynamic reading, poignant in its gentle echoes.  Probably his best-known sacred work, Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger’s (1839-1901) subtly introspective, syllabic six-voiced "Evening Song" (1873) was sensitively shaped and richly satisfying. Another fine miniature was “O nata lux” (O Light born of Light) from “Lux Aeterna” by one of America’s most acclaimed and widely-performed choral composers Morton Lauridson (b.1943), its economic use of pure triads and those coloured by an added second or fourth flowing in in a stream of undulating melodic lines in the composer’s glistening treatment of the theme of light. And to “Stars”, a mysterious and mystical night piece in four voices by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b.1977) to the text of American poetess Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.  Ešenvalds’ unique setting calls for water-filled glasses of specific pitches and sounded by the singers themselves by running a wet finger around the rim. Herzog led the singers securely through this work of floating, magical timbres with its underlay of clusters created by the water-tuned glasses (and their overtones) and the sonorous choral writing of fluctuating crescendos and diminuendos as its spacious, otherworldly mood was crowned by a weightlessly-suspended high soprano “a”.

‘Alone in the night
On a dark hill
With pines around me
Spicy and still,
And a heaven of stars
Over my head,
White and topaz
And misty red…’

Turning to a different kind of repertoire, we heard “Amazing Grace” William Cowper’s hymn text to words by Anglican minister John Newton, published 1779, nowadays mostly sung to the melody of “New Britain” and referred to by Gilbert Chase as “the most famous of all the folk hymns”. In Israeli composer/conductor Tzvi Sherf’s evocative and imaginative arrangement of the song, IVE bass Ronen Ravid soloed with splendid natural mastery, at one point joined by soprano Talia Dishon to give the performance a fleeting Afro-American touch.

An unusual and unique addition to such a program, Eyal Aizik’s hearty-, imaginative- and intermittently intimate saxophone improvisations, taking their cue from the program’s repertoire, added an enriching and indeed profound dimension to the event. The “timeline” agenda of Maestro Herzog’s program effected the integrating of works of all eras into a fluid and satisfying continuum, with the obvious rapport between him and the IVE singers resulting in interesting, high-quality choral performance of exceptional depth and beauty.



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