Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble opens its 2013-2014 season with a program of Psalms

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble, conducted by founder and musical director Yuval Benozer, opened its 2013-2013 concert series – the Vocal Experience – with “Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum” (Sing to the Lord a new song, Psalm 96:1) a program of psalms of the great composers and of some contemporary composers not familiar to all. With the psalm one of the oldest forms of sacred song in western culture, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s program presented a variety of works inspired by these texts. This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 1st 2013. Aviad Stier (organ) and Haggai Zehavi (double bass) participated in some of the works performed

Established by Yuval Benozer in 1993, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble is a small group of professional singers. The ensemble sings repertoire spanning from the Middle Ages to contemporary music. Performing widely in Israel and further afield, also with many Israeli orchestras, the singers work with a variety of world-renowned choral conductors, have premiered three new works, participated in many festivals and won prizes in international choral competitions. Yuval Benozer has conducted prominent orchestras in Israel, Europe and South America. He is also the musical director of the Kibbutz Artzi Choir and chairman of the Israeli Choir Organization.

With the stage of the Recanati Auditorium darkened, the program opened with American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b.1970) “Alleluia”. Written for the Sidney Sussex College Choir and premiered by it at Cambridge University (UK) in 2011, the piece represents a new trend in the composer’s work. Having previously avoided the setting of liturgical texts, singing in the Sidney Sussex College Choir for a year brought Whitacre “awareness of the deep wisdom in the liturgical service”, finding himself “suddenly open to the history and beauty of the poetry”, in his words. He adapted “October”, a piece he had written for wind symphony, to the simple and spiritual single-worded text –“Alleluia”(done previously by Randall Thompson). In a performance evoking the mystery and rapturous wonder of the word, we heard singing that was pure, weightless in the work’s layering, its clarity the result of superb control. Soloists were Taliya Dishon and Oded Amir.

As choirmaster of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, for the last 60 years of his life, Monteverdi wrote much sacred music, exploring the sonic possibilities and effects of that complex space. In Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) motet “Cantata Domino canticum novum”, from which this program took its title, a setting for six voices, the singers were joined by Aviad Stier and Haggai Zehavi. Opening homophonically, the piece welds Monteverdi’s madrigal style into a motet form. The two vocal trio groups gave expression to the piece’s arioso style and exuberance, interacting with each other, with the psalm text moving back and forth between them. Next to his Vespers of 1610, Monteverdi’s 1641 “Selva Morale e spiritual” (The Moral and Spiritual Forest), 37 motets, psalms, Mass settings and madrigals from different stages of his creative years, is Monteverdi’s most significant and virtuosic collection. From this book, the IVE gave the “Confitebor alla francese”, in its many small sections, a sense of immediacy, clarity and precision. Soloists were soprano Taliya Dishon and alto Avivit Menachem,

Lithuanian choral conductor, educator and composer Vytautas Miškinis (b.1954) has written over 400 secular works, some 150 sacred words and over 100 folk song arrangements for various combinations. His oeuvre is almost exclusively choral. In one of his several settings of “Cantate Domine canticum novum” (1997), this uplifting version of the piece was sung by women only. Miškinis’ music is in the tonal world, his chords gently colored by dissonances and added notes. The IVE singers brought out this music’s accessive melodiousness, the composer’s reverence for the text and the user-friendly catchy, lilting, almost jazzy rhythm of the piece. Kudos to the IVE for introducing this beautiful and unfamiliar choral repertoire to the local concert-goer!

Another modern work was Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi’s (b.1963) “Canticum Calamitas Maritimae” in eight voices. The work was inspired by the sinking of the cruise ferry MS Estonia in 1994 and is dedicated to the 852 people whose lives were lost in one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century. Texts used, from Psalms and the Catholic Requiem Mass, appeared in surtitles above the stage. Yuval Benozer and his singers created a skilful and sensitive collage of the many elements of this work, from the initial exhaling-and sighing sounds setting the scene – symbolizing the sea, perhaps - the women then randomly, hauntingly speaking a phrase from the Requiem Mass creating the collective-individual effect of prayer, this followed by a wordless, sole, folksong-like melody, sung as if from afar by soprano Nava Sahar, standing at the back of the hall. Following the report in Latin of the sinking ship, the text moved to Psalm 107, speaking of those “who go down to the sea in ships”, with the basses singing in eerie parallel fifths. The work then built up to a clamorous climax before dropping into the uneasy calm of “Requiem aeternum”, the fifths returning as if a warning, and, once again, the mournful solo soprano voice. Peter Simpson sang the bass solo. In this very moving performance, the IVE presented the work on its three levels – the individual, the objective and the collective.
‘Some went out on the sea in ships;
They were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
His wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
That lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
In their peril their courage melted away. Psalm 107:23-26

The Israeli content of the program consisted of Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927) “Mizmorei Tehillim” (Psalm Songs) composed in 1967 for a cappella 4-voiced mixed choir. Opening with the forthright ”Clap your hands, all you nations” (Psalm 47) peppered with strident parallel octaves and syncopations, Psalm 48 “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” begins in a more relaxed, mellifluous vein, eventually building up massively, its modal soundscape filled with contrasts. In “Hallelujah” (Psalm 50) the bare octaves return, to be punctuated by large chunks of harmonies and vivid choral textures. The choir’s razor-sharp diction added to the direct expression of these three fine miniatures.

The second half of the program, focusing on German music, included Heinrich Schütz’ (1585-1672) “Die mit Tränen säen” SWV 378, one of the 29 motets from the “Geistliche Chormusik” (Spiritual Choral Music) published in 1648, the year ending the “Thirty Years’ War”; besides the heavy mood of this genre of German music, one of the effects of the war was that the Dresden court, of which Schütz was musical director, was working with fewer musicians. The IVE showed this aspect by having the motet performed by organ and just five singers: Taliya Dishon, Naomi Brill-Engel, Gabriel Goler, Eliav Lavi and Ronen Ravid. A combination of the Venetian polychoral concertato style, giving equal weight to both voices and instruments, and Protestant German tradition, we know that the German performers of Schütz’ time found this cutting-edge music extremely difficult to perform. In a beautifully shaped and fervent reading of this funeral motet, observing its quick mood changes, the singers leaned into dissonances and the meanings of words, the latter highlighting the idea of hope at the end:
‘They who sow with tears will reap with joy.
They go out and weep and carry worthy seed
And return with joy and bring their sheaves’. Psalm 126:5-6

Singing Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) a cappella setting of Psalm 43, “Richte mich, Gott” (Give sentence with me, O God), the singers presented the composer’s “concerto” effect with his coloristic use of vocal textures - here, women’s voices in answer to phrases sung by the men, sonorous double choir passages and interesting contrasts between the piece's three sections, and all articulated in well-pronounced German. Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) a cappella choral pieces use a musical idiom learned from his study of Renaissance- and very early Baroque counterpoint. “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz” (Create in me, O God, a pure heart), composed in 1889, features a text drawn from Psalm 51, its structure bristling in canonic writing. In five voices, unusual in its two bass parts, the singers showed themselves responsive to both words and music.

The concert concluded with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) motet “Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied!” (Sing to the Lord a new song). Composed possibly in Leipzig in 1727, Bach used texts from Psalms 149 and 150 and a hymn by Johann Gramann. Written for double choir without instrumental accompaniment, Yuval Benozer chose a performance practice used in Bach’s day - that of doubling voices with instruments (organ and double bass). One of the most challenging of choral works in complexity and density, this motet requires “instrumental” virtuosity from its singers and much sensitivity. Avoiding any form of over-dramatization, Benozer led his singers through this taxing work with clarity, freshness and rhythmic vitality. Lightening melodic lines with springy textures, double-choir sonorities never emerged as turgid; they allowed for the intricacies of the counterpoint to meet in voice play of the most sophisticated kind. The use of a solo quartet for the chorale statements interspersed through the second movement added poetry and naïve beauty to the performance. Aviad Stier and Haggai Zehavi’s playing was sensitive to the singers.

Yuval Benozer has assembled an attractive group of competent singers, producing a well-balanced and finely blended choral ensemble. Each very different project taken on by him and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble is carried out with dedication, in-depth work and fine musicianship. Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum was rewarding and enriching.

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