Thursday, May 16, 2019

Under its music director Yuval Benozer, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble performs a program of music on the subject of freedom

Photo: Niv Shimon, Craft 7 Studio
The Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s recent concert - “Bells of Freedom”, conducted by its founder and music director Yuval Benozer, presented a highly varied selection of works on the theme of freedom. This writer attended the concert at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on May 10th 2019.


Of the works from classical repertoire, the IVE’s performance of Heinrich Schütz’ “An den Wassern zu Babel” (By the Waters of Babylon) from Psalms of David (1619) brought out the emotional extremes which Schütz was infusing into his adopted language of Gabrieli’s Venetian polychoral style. The ensemble highlighted the variety of colours and textures and declamatory characteristics of individual phrases. In crystal-clear, sculpted singing, unmarred by vibrato, the singers gave expression to the work’s tragedy and its humility, utilizing the rich qualities of German vowel sounds and the glister of the consonants to create strong emotional effects. No less impressive was the ensemble’s performance of Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece “Figure Humaine” (1943), a work composed in secret in occupied France and inspired by the resistance poems of the surrealist poet Paul Éluard. Representing the culmination of Poulenc's choral writing, “Figure Humaine”, like the Schütz work, is scored for double choir, but of six parts each, the cumulative effect of Poulenc's setting of Éluard's short poems presenting a provocative musical score of considerable grandeur. Referring to its a-cappella writing, Poulenc wrote: “I composed the work for unaccompanied choir because I wanted this act of faith to be performed without instrumental aid, by sole means of the human voice.”  In a  supreme test of stamina, technical agility, range, aural skill and musicianship, requiring unmatched concentration and musicianship from every participant, the singers, who had worked on the piece under the guidance of Guy Pelc, undertook the expressive task of communicating Éluard’s wartime thoughts with deep understanding, commitment, feeling and skill. Enlisting the full range of dynamics, sections performed with uncompromising intensity alternated effectively with intimate, reflective mood pieces cushioned in lush French harmony, the ensemble’s phrasing wonderfully shaped. As to “Liberté” (Freedom), the extraordinary last movement, Benozer and his singers showed the listener through its emotional process, generating a majestic, optimistic climax to the work. Because of its challenges, “Figure Humaine” is rarely performed. This was indeed an opportunity not to be missed.


The program included some zesty Zulu freedom songs, performed in an unrestrained, folk-like manner. Soloists Ori Batchko and Daniel Portnoy were certainly in their element with their stirring, upbeat performances. The IVE’s bracket of Afro-American songs was most satisfying, the singers’ English intelligible and articulate and the material presented with awareness as to onomatopoeic effects. In some excellent, vibrantly jazzy arrangements, the singers presented the energy and joy of Afro-American music, but also with the element of the slaves’ suffering threaded throughout. Soloists were Ronen Ravid, Joel Sivan, Sarah Even Haim and Tom Ben Ishai. Jazz pianist Noam Avnon’s tasteful playing was the key feature in excerpts performed from Duke Ellington’s somewhat repetitive “Freedom Suite”. Soloing in Yoram Tehar Lev’s Hebrew translation of Georges Mustaki’s “Ma liberté” (My Freedom), tenor Jonathan Suissa offered an understated, sensitive and poignant interpretation of the fragile chanson:

“My freedom

I have long kept you

Like a rare pearl

My freedom

It's you who helped me

Shed my anchors

To go anywhere

To go to the end

Of the paths of fortune

To dreamily pick

A rose of the winds

On a moonbeam…”


Concluding this truly outstanding concert, Yuval Benozer and his singers gave a warm, exhilarating performance of the much-loved Hebrew Slaves Chorus from Verdi's “Nabucco”, its text showing the parallels Verdi draws between the Hebrews under Assyrian rule and the Italians under the Austrian occupation in the mid-1800s.

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