Pure ‘piyutim’

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble preserves the ethnic spirit of the piyut in two upcoming concerts.

Maureen Nehedar (photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Maureen Nehedar
(photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Think choral music, and the magnificent sweeping, lush, deftly stratified tones of works created by the likes of Bach, Handel and Mozart may readily spring to mind. Indeed, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble has been doing plenty of the aforementioned and much more to great acclaim across the globe for a quarter of a century.
Now, a full 25 years after musical director Yuval Benozer founded the choir, the ensemble is ready to spread its seasoned wings across previously untested disciplinary waters. The choir’s new Vocal Experience season kicks off, on October 25 (8:30 p.m. at the Ra’anana Municipal Center for Music and Arts) and November 3 (8:30 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Museum), with the Piyutim concert. The star turn of the show will be liturgical singer Maureen Nehedar, who feeds off heady Persian roots, and is about to release her latest record, Lama Ta’amod Rahok (Why Do You Stand Afar).
Today, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about addressing liturgical material. Over the past five to six years, that has almost become a mainstream form of entertainment, as piyutim have become all the rage at such prestigious venues as the Tel Aviv Museum and Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. Then again, over the centuries renditions of Jewish liturgical music have stuck to the original monotonal substratum characteristic of the genre.
But there’s not much point in having a 20+ strong choir if all the vocalists are going to produce the same tone. Choirs, by definition, are designed to deliver richly textured soundscapes.
Benozer has followed the rise in popularity of liturgical music across the country, and decided that he and his ensemble could also deliver the goods, especially in this part of the world. “This country, as we know, is an amazing cultural melting pot, and over the past few years, more and more singers have begun to take all of that varied musical background and use it for their own needs.”
Then again, the second- and third-generation progeny of olim, who grew up as modern, largely Westernized Israelis, have begun to dig into their familial backdrop and rediscover their roots. “They have started to check out where they come from, take that and run with it. There are people like [ethnic-based rocker] Dudu Tasa, who does Iraqi music, and [diva] Rita, who does Persian music, and many others. It is a powerful process, based on solo vocalists. This wave has passed the choirs by because, by definition, a choir is a Western musical body that sings in harmony. Harmony is not part of the aesthetics of Mediterranean Basin countries.”
Benozer was keen to make the most of the sounds of the multifarious ethnic seams that run through Israeli society, but without losing sight of the core musical anchor of liturgical works. “I thought it would be a shame not to address the wealth of Israeli Jewish music. Music in this country is so varied. You could take something like ‘Dror Yikra’ (which originates from the medieval Spanish Jewish community) or some East European hassidic nigun (melody), or take a song in Ladino. All these things are considered Jewish music, but they span such a wide spectrum. That is very special, but I felt it was a pity that there are almost no choral arrangements of piyutim, especially those that originate from Mediterranean music, not in the sense of [Mizrahi pop singer] Eyal Golan but, rather, from the Mediterranean Basin.”
This was proving to be quite an ambitious venture, and the choir got in a few dress rehearsals, including a spot with the Ashdod Andalusian Orchestra. Benozer also brought in some heavyweights to provide arrangements that fit the ethnic choral bill. “We weren’t sure how it was all going to work out, but after working with the Andalusian Orchestra and getting the arrangers on board, we realized we had some great elements to work with.”
Those elements, says Benozer, are what it’s all about. As far as he is concerned, variety is the spice of life in general, not just in his chosen profession. “There are layers and strands in everything these days, not just in music. It’s the same in hi-tech and anything else you find. It’s always about fusing and blending. It’s like in painting. You take different colors to produce new shades. You don’t just use the primary colors.”
Benozer got some top-notch professionals to help with the genre-commingling endeavor. “I turned to arrangers, really good arrangers, and I told them there are piyutim which are originally monotonal but that they have potential.”
Benozer went for broke, contacting experts from across a range of ethnic tracts, including composer Reuven Kaziloti, who is also known as a researcher of Jewish Georgian music, and composers Yvgeni Levitas and Zvi Sherf.
“The great challenge with arranging piyutim for a choir is to preserve the original, ethnic monotonal spirit of the piyut, while also tailoring it for four harmonic voices,” says the musical director. “I think we have managed that very well, and we have enriched the repertoire and our audiences.”
The proof of that single-layer multitextural pudding continuum will be on display on October 25 and November 3.
“We took, for example, an Iraqi song called ‘Yom Hashabbat,’” Benozer explains. “It is a simple tune with only four notes, no more. They repeat about 20 times through the stanzas. We gave the tune to an arranger, who turned it into a song of about three minutes. It came out wonderful, so varied, and can be performed by different lineups.”
That, says Benozer, not only required strong arranging skills and wide musical experience, it also involved a gentle hand on the arranging tiller. “You take a really simple melody and westernize a little, but make sure you don’t blur the source material. You don’t want to turn it into opera. It is a fascinating process.”
The facts on the ground support Benozer’s glowing impression. “We tried out the song at the Ashdod concert, and it was very successful, the audience really liked it. The singers also enjoyed themselves, and there was no compromise. The song moved into another [stylistic] medium. There is a difference between a medium transition and compromise. At the end of the day, the aim is to maintain the quality level. You can paint a picture in monochrome or with lots of colors. But you have to come up with a quality work of art.”
All told, the curtain-raiser features 15 songs, some of which come from Nehedar’s new album.
“We have a good bond with Maureen,” Benozer notes. She and the musical director also speak the same music language. “Maureen is a paytanit [liturgical singer] who comes from a classical background. She returned to her roots, but she is a singer. But she doesn’t just bring the music, she also brings herself to the stage. She has great stage presence, and she imbues the music with so much richness.”
Benozer is delighted to feed off the broad ethnic gamut we have here which, he says, suits the thematic genre in question. “There is such a variety of piyutim, which adds interest to such performances. In our concerts we will do piyutim from Egypt, Morocco and Georgia, and also hassidic piyutim. There is a blend of things. That, for me, is fascinating. That is the way to sing religious music which is not canon-based. That’s the whole idea behind piyut.”

For tickets and more information: (077) 201-9573 and www.nive.co.il