A different kind of music

The Israeli Bach Soloists play the gamut from Trecento to Baroque, but aren’t afraid to tackle contemporary music as well

This year, the Israeli Bach Soloists, a young and vigorous, 12-strong early music ensemble comprising both vocalists and instrumentalists, is presenting its own subscription series for the first time. The liturgical program, called “The Voice of the Soul,” features historically informed performance of masses, cantatas and motets by J.S. Bach – but not only Bach.

One evening will be dedicated to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude, the important composer of German Baroque, while in another program the ensemble will perform the world premiere of David’s Lament by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun.

Bach’s St. John’s Passion, led from the first violin by Sigiswald Kuijken, one of the world’s major ancient music experts – who is coming to Israel especially for this concert – will arguably become the season’s highlight.

The series, which starts September 21, will consist of five concerts performed at the Einav Center in the heart of Tel Aviv. Some of the concerts will be repeated at various venues countrywide – Jerusalem, Beersheba, Kfar Blum, Haifa and Kibbutz Eilon.

The ensemble is also offering Different Music, a chamber series at the intimate Hateiva Hall in Jaffa.

The ensemble, founded almost two years ago by multifaceted Israeli musician Sharon Rosner, 36, and his wife, harpsichord/organ player Zohar Shefi, won recognition during its last season from both local music-lovers and professional critics when it presented a five-concert cycle of J.S. Bach cantatas coinciding with the Lutheran calendar. With Abu Ghosh’s Kiryat Ye’arim church as the center of its activities, the ensemble performed around the country.

Today, Rosner seems so immersed in Baroque music that it is hard to believe he found his true passion almost by chance. His path toward this 17th-century music was a long one.

Starting with a recorder on kibbutz at age six, Rosner soon emerged as a gifted child and was taught the piano; but later, drifting from the classics to jazz, he switched to the double bass.

At 23, he returned to the classics and went to study in Holland – yet soon found himself at the University of California in San Diego, studying complicated performance techniques of the most avant-garde music.

“One day at the excellent university library, my eyes drifted to manuscripts of music for the viola da gamba – and I was lost,” he recollects.

He packed his suitcases, returned home to teach himself this instrument and, together with his future wife, founded their first ensemble, Antique – a forerunner of the Bach Soloists.

After the Bach Soloists’ first concerts, the ensemble was approached by Gershon Cohen, the producer of Abu Ghosh’s musical activities, who suggested they might perform an entire cycle of Bach’s cantatas.

But, added Cohen, “With all due respect to last season’s rave reviews, your ensemble appeared in the framework of the Abu Ghosh liturgical series, whose reputation virtually ensured that your performances would be sold out.

“Now you’re on your own. What are you going to offer the public to convince it to come?” he asked.

Replied Rosner, calmly, “We’re offering ourselves as a unique ensemble. The common practice is for soloists, choir, instrumentalists and conductor to meet on stage and, from there on, achieve this or that musical result. Our practice is different, because the ensemble includes both instrumentalists and vocalists who have been working together for a long time.

The result is different.

“Another aspect is that our vocalists sing everything – there’s no partition between soloists and choir, which makes them sing differently. Their role in the ensemble is closer to that of the instrumentalists”.

“Also, we keep working on everything that has to do with the word – diction, pronunciation, intonation – because in Baroque culture, the music comes from the words. It illuminates them, and people need to hear them clearly”.

“On the whole, I believe that within the relatively short time of the ensemble’s existence, we’ve managed to bring a different culture of singing to the local stage,” concludes Rosner.

In their five-concert Different Music chamber series in Jaffa, “We will mostly play rarely performed early music from Trecento to Baroque: pieces for viola da gamba by Marin Marais, Gesualdo’s madrigals, and so on,” says Rosner. “Yet one program will be dedicated to contemporary music – pieces written for us by Israeli composers.

“The Meitar ensemble will be hosting us for this program, and I’m sure we’ll keep playing contemporary music with them on mixed modern and historical instruments.”

Rosner explains that from a performer’s point of view, early and contemporary music have a lot in common.

“When you approach a contemporary piece, there’s no tradition of performing it to back you. You have to cope with it using your own your personal tools. And even if, now, there exists some understanding of how Bach’s or Handel’s music should sound on early instruments, the ambition of the historical performance is not to follow a tradition, but to reach straight into the musical text and try to strip off all the possible layers and coatings.”

The musicians perform from scores which Rosner prepares, using Bach’s original texts.

“Of course, I could have relied on some existing editions, but I’m curious to know what Bach himself wrote. And even if sometimes the difference is so insignificant that only specialists can notice it, it is important for us to receive a musical text that is as pure as possible.

“On the other hand, approaching Bach’s pieces, we need to remember that Baroque music was something alive and breathing, and that Bach, revising his opuses, used to change many things. Some pieces have survived only as sketches, and musicians complain that there’s no consistency in what he wrote.

“Yet it means only that we must be more free in our approach. When I prepare the pieces, I try to let [the freedom] out, and this is what we do at our rehearsals: We create a framework on which we all agree, and then each musician takes his little freedom.”

“You perform the St. John’s Passion with eight vocalists and no choir at all. Don’t you think you are going a bit too far in denying the tradition?” we ask Rosner.

“The question here is not how many musicians participated in the performance, but how the piece was performed,” he replies.

“The common practice in 17th-century Germany and Italy was to use two singers for each part: a concertist, or principal singer, and a so-called ripienist in support. While the concertists sang throughout, the ripienists joined in only intermittently, adding more volume”.

“We don’t know what Bach’s ideal was, but a constant lack of musicians was his reality and he was forced to compose for a limited number of artists. This is how we perform it, and as a result, the music receives different meaning – it becomes much more personal”.

“When in St. John’s Passion a tenor sings not only the [part of the] Evangelist but also arias, he not only narrates the story, he also lives it. When a vocalist sings not only Jesus, but also recitatives and choral fragments, he is not only Jesus but also a group of believers; he is one of those in whom this story evokes powerful feelings”.

“I believe it makes the audience more engaged in the performance. You don’t just watch a show onstage – rather, the music calls you to be a part of this drama.”

Bach Soloists manager Nurit Blum, who combines a musical and management background, adds that lately the ensemble has become a home ensemble of the Shtriker Conservatory in Tel Aviv, and that the ensemble’s members see the transfer of their major musical activities to Tel Aviv as very positive.

“It makes our concerts far more accessible – as we know from our listeners, not everybody could get to Abu Ghosh on a Saturday morning.”

With regard to promoting the ensemble, Blum says she explains to its potential audience that the concerts “are actually an invitation to time travel, plus a unique opportunity to see and hear how it was really done in Bach’s time.”

There are discounts as well as bonuses for subscription holders – for example, the best seats in the concert hall. “We really want to create a family core of listeners and to nurture and pamper it in all possible ways,” Blum smiles.

“Heart and Deed,” the opening concert of the Voice and Soul series, is on September 21 at 8:30 p.m. at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv, and will be repeated September 24 at Kibbutz Eilon as a part of the Yehiam Festival; October 10 at the Mormon University in Jerusalem, and on October 13 at the Jerusalem Academy. For the detailed program, see http://www.bachsoloists.org

For reservations call (03) 546-6228

By MAXIM REIDER
08/09/2010

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