Last Saturday, a young and vigorous 12-member strong ensemble of Israeli Bach Soloists opened its season with a captivating matinee at the packed Abu Ghosh Kiryat Yearim church.
"Between Succot in October and Shavuot in May, we shall perform a five-concert cycle of J.S. Bach cantatas, fitted to the Lutheran calendar," said the ensemble's founder and artistic director Sharon Rosner. "This is how they are often performed in Europe and the US, but for Israel this approach is quite new."
"With Abu Ghosh being the center of our activity, we shall perform literally throughout the country, from Beersheba to the Kinneret," he said, adding that the concert program also features the best pieces from Bach's contemporaries - Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Zelenka and others.
The very body language of the multifaceted Israeli musician Sharon Rosner, 35, as he conducted the ensemble - soprano Hadas Faran, alto Avital Dery, tenor David Nortman, bassist Yair Polishook, oboists Amir Bakman and Shay Kribus, vilolinists Hadas Fabrikant and Rachel Ringelstein, violist Katya Polin, cellist Ira Givol and his organ/harpsichord-player wife Zohar Shefi - suggests that today he is totally immersed in the Baroque-era music.
But his path toward this 17th-century music style was a long one, and he seems to have found his true passion almost by chance.
After taking up the block flute on kibbutz at age six, he immediately emerged as a gifted child, and his tutors decided to bring in a piano teacher especially for him.
"He was a huge Russian man, with sausage-like fingers, who used to sit on the table at the far corner of the class, shouting in Russian: "Play! Play!" recollects Rosner with a smile.
Yet this was inspiring enough for him to continue his music career. He studied piano in Beersheba, then, drifting from classics to jazz, he exchanged his piano for a double bass in Jerusalem, still uncertain that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Being only 23, he made up his mind to return to classics, and went to study in Holland.
But in the next step of his quest for a musical identity, Rosner found himself at the University of California in San Diego, studying complicated performance techniques of the most avant-garde music.
"I used to spend a lot of time in the excellent university library. One day my eyes drifted aside and I revealed manuscripts of music for the viola da gamba and was lost."
He never received his degree in contemporary music. Instead, he packed his suitcases and returned home to teach himself this new instrument, the viola da gamba.
Here, he met his future wife, organ/harpsichord-player Zohar Shefi, whom he already knew from Holland, and together they started playing what they liked most - French Baroque music. Together they founded their first ensemble, Antique, which appears to have been the first rendition of the Bach Soloists.
As their musical horizons widened, J.S. Bach's cantatas attracted their attention. With the idea of performing Bach's pieces, they approached Gershon Cohen, the producer of the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival and a great champion of liturgical music in Israel.
He invited them to play the entire cycle of cantatas, fitting the performance schedule to the holy dates of the Lutheran calendar.
"Gershon tried to organize it here for quite a long time, but it somehow never worked. As for us - we simply could not dream of more," said Rosner enthusiastically.
They met Cohen in December 2007 and since then have been delving deep into research on Bach.
"We do not use traditional Bach scores, which one can buy in a music shop, but rather work with the composer's original manuscripts, which are photographed and sent to us from Germany, and we dig as deep as possible," explained Rosner, who eventually became the group's conductor.
"We perform it without a choir, despite what the 19th century tradition prescribes, and there are evidences that this is how it was in the days of Bach.
"The advantages of this performance are obvious. This approach changes the very character of the piece - it makes it far more intimate. The singers are much more involved in the performance and, together with the instrumentalists, become equal partners in the music making."
Rosner emphasizes that although they play on period instruments and dedicate great effort to in-depth music research, a dry, authentic performance is the last thing they are interested in.
"Just the opposite, he said. "We try and find the hidden beauty of the music in order to present it live and vivid to our listeners."