Vocalizing chamber music

The European William Byrd Ensemble adds a touch of old-world charm to this year’s Felicja Blumental Festival.

April 9, 2011 11:16
3 minute read.

WILLIAM BYRD 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The 13th Felicja Blumental International Music Festival, which runs between April 11-16 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is traditionally known for its top-quality programs, which appeal to diverse audiences. This year the festival, which is dedicated to the memory of Polish-born pianist Felicja Blumental and co-directed by her daughter soprano singer Anette Celin and Israeli music life organizer Avigail Arnheim, features chamber music, orchestral concerts, recitals, and family programs with great musicians and ensembles from all over the world.

This year, the festival brings back to the home stage several Israeli artists and ensembles that have built their successful careers abroad, such as piano duo Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen (Germany) and animation artist Gil Elkabetz, as well as a theater presentation and music documentaries. There are three to four programs a day, presented at several museum venues, starting from noon.

Intriguing Israeli premieres have always been part of the Felicja Blumental Festival offering. This year, the renowned vocal European William Byrd Ensemble from France under its founder Graham O’Reilly is just one of them.

“What interests me most is a blend of solo voices, as opposed to soloists and choirs, says O’Reilly in a phone interview from his home in France.

The singer/conductor, known for his predilection for the early repertoire, adds, “I also think that music written before 1750 is closer to what I am temperamentally. It is very intimate.”

O’Reilly, who was born in Australia and trained as a musicologist, left his native land long ago to move to England, where he spent nine years as a consort singer. “I was a member of an ensemble that consisted of 12 solo singers and performed a contemporary repertoire. But since I am usually more interested in ancient music, I founded the William Byrd Ensemble. The reason I moved to France is not just because I met my singer wife here but also because I felt I had more chances to do the things I wanted to do there rather than in England.”

He explains that in England, “early music life is ruled by people from Oxford and Cambridge – Oxbridge.

And as a ‘colonial’ from Australia, I didn’t have much chance to get through. Also, culturally speaking, the French like rehearsing, which allows me to go deeper into the piece, while the British, who are wonderful sight readers, can prepare a concert program in three hours of rehearsal.

This is a bit superficial, although there is an economic reason behind it, too.”

Speaking about his ensemble, O’Reilly compares it to a string quartet, with its cooperative atmosphere. “What we do is vocal chamber music, and I think this is the most interesting way to bring out the early music that we do.

There’s nothing as democratic as polyphony, where everyone has his own tune and his contribution to make.”

What is his way of reviving the music written a few centuries ago? After all, no one has ever heard it live.

“The first thing to do is to get as close as possible to what the composer might have expected to hear, always knowing that this is probably impossible. Then you have to try to make it attractive for the modern audience and show why it is relevant to them.” He adds, “I think I’m also making this music because the text is important. You have to make it sound as if it could only be done to the notes that the composer had put on the page.”

But how could the music, which was created in a totally different epoch, be relevant to a modern person? “The world has changed, but humans have not,” asserts O’Reilly.

“They have the same emotions, the same desires, the same worries. In many ways, music written in the 17th century is closer to modern people than that composed in the late 19th, early 20th century. This is not a question of religious or secular music either, but rather of the emotion being expressed in this music and the way the composers conveyed it.”

Twenty years ago, when the ensemble was inaugurated, it performed mostly the music of William Byrd, but over the years its repertoire has widened and now includes 20th-century music as well.

“I find this early-music intimacy in the work of Australian composer Percy Granger, which we will perform in Israel (together with other pieces)”, says O’Reilly.

The European William Byrd Ensemble will appear in two programs on April 16. For more details: www.blumentalfestival.com, For reservations: 1-700-555-114

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