Beck’s recall

Conductor Rolf Beck returns to Israel with a repertoire that ranges from Vivaldi to contemporary composer Arvo Part.

December 3, 2011 18:49
Rolf Beck

Rolf Beck 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The new Israeli Opera season of liturgical music kicks off next week with a program that spans three centuries and four countries.

The series opens with a far-ranging repertoire that includes Vivaldi’s Gloria (RV 589), Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht and Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten by contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. The three works will be performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Choir and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra with Rolf Beck on the conductor’s podium at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center (December 7) and at the Jerusalem Theater (December 8).

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This is something of a homecoming for Beck, who has performed in Israel several times over the last 30 or so years, although it has been 15 years since his last working visit here.

“My first working visit to Israel was when I played with the Jerusalem Symphony; I think it was in the 1970s,” recalls Beck, adding that, at the time, he and his colleagues managed to skirt round a potential political minefield. “We did a Bach program, but at that time it was not so good to sing in German [in Israel], so we chose a Bach program in Latin,” he recounts.

Beck, the choir and the JSO will not only perform an international program, but there will be quite a few countries represented on stage too, including some fine homespun talent.

“The academy choir is now very international and includes four members from Israel. One of them, Maya Blaustein, will sing solo in the Vivaldi. She is a wonderful soprano.
She’s only 19 or 20. She is one of the most talented members I have. We also have members from South Africa, Brazil, Russia – all over the world.”

The academy choir in question is the Schleswig Holstein Festival Choir Academy, which Beck founded and serves as its artistic director. He has been choirmaster and conductor of the Bamberg choral ensemble for more than 20 years. Naturally, there are a lot of interfaces between the two choirs. “Over half the people in the Bamberg choir are members of the choir academy, too,” he says.

Beck will not be coming here “just” to wield his baton in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “While I am in Israel I will be holding auditions for next year’s choir academy. There are members from about 25 different nations in the choir, it’s unbelievable. We just recorded [Carl] Orff’s Carmina Burana.”

The choir and the JSO will certainly mix things here next week. “The Jerusalem Symphony asked that we start with the Part piece, which is very different from the Vivaldi,” explains Beck. “The Vivaldi is a very popular piece in places like Germany and Italy, and I like the Mendelssohn piece very much. It is a very difficult work and a great challenge for the orchestra. They really have to play, and it’s a wonderful subject to sing about.”

The text for Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) was taken from a poem by Goethe, and Mendelssohn originally planned to have it set to music by his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter made a couple of attempts but never completed the job. Mendelssohn knew Goethe and tried his hand at composing the music for Die erste Walpurgisnacht in 1830, eventually completing it in 1843. The work was first performed in Leipzig in February of that year.

Die erste Walpurgisnacht is something of a comic tale but with a significant subtext. The story centers around the attempt of some Druids to celebrate their pagan May Day ritual, despite heavy opposition from the Christian regime. A comic solution emerges as a Druid watchman suggests forming a masquerade of Satan, spirits and demons to frighten the Christians away. The latter duly flee, and the Druids are left to celebrate freely.

Mendelssohn was drawn to the text by the ghost scene in the story – the music he wrote for this part bears some similarity to his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and by the idea of the victory of an oppressed group over the ruling power.

“I think that work will make a very good second part of our concert,” says Beck. “It is not performed so often, and I believe Mendelssohn is popular in Israel.”

Beck says that his line of business is enjoying something a revival in the era of YouTube and instant gratification entertainment.

“Church music is becoming more and more important in our times for people to listen and to contemplate and to hear inside themselves in these hectic times,” he observes. “Faure’s Requiem, for example, which we recently recorded, is one of those pieces that are more important now for people to listen to and to calm down to, and it ends wonderfully with ‘In Paradisium.’” The latter section describes how the dead body is escorted to Paradise by the angels.

Beck is delighted to be returning to Israel after a long hiatus. “I did the first performance of [Bach’s] St. John’s Passion in Israel. It was on Mount Zion at Dormition Abbey. We did four or five concerts because it was very spectacular. It’s not such an easy piece for Jewish people to hear, but it was the premiere of the work in Israel. I have a close link with Israel, and I am really looking forward to coming back,” he says.

Rolf Beck will perform with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Choir and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on December 7 and at the Jerusalem Theater on December 8. For more information and tickets: (03) 692-7777 and, and and (02) 560-5575.

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