The Israeli Vocal Ensemble is celebrating its 30th anniversary

The veteran choral troupe celebrates with a two-day festival in Zichron Yaakov

 FRIEDER BERNIUS: Singing in an ensemble should be comparable with playing in an orchestra – the sound of the instruments.  (photo credit: JENS MEISERT)
FRIEDER BERNIUS: Singing in an ensemble should be comparable with playing in an orchestra – the sound of the instruments.
(photo credit: JENS MEISERT)

Frieder Bernius has been here, there, and everywhere and managed this, that, and practically everything else in the music sector over the past 55 years. That, incredibly, is the span of time he has spent at the helm of Kammerchor Stuttgart, one of the world’s leading classical choral ensembles.

The evergreen 75-year-old German conductor is heading this way, along with his faithful chorists, for a concert at the Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel in Zichron Yaakov as part of the 30th-anniversary festivities of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (IVE). The two-day event, which began Thursday and continues on Friday, also takes in organ music, jazz, liturgical music and the odd movie soundtrack tidbit. The composer rostrum includes Bach, late Israeli composer Noam Sheriff, Mendelssohn, 20th-century Hungarian innovator György Ligeti, Israeli songsmiths Sasha Argov and Naomi Shemer, and Elton John. Not a bad spread for a milestone birthday.
Bernius is no stranger to these shores. “I started coming to Israel in 1984,” he tells me. “Next year will be the 40th anniversary of my first cooperation [in Israel]. That was with the Israel Chamber Orchestra. I have done, I would say, around 20 projects [in Israel] in the following years.” That includes a performance here, in 2015, to mark a half-century of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. The Kammerchor Stuttgart has also appeared at the Abu Gosh choral festival and Bernius has filled the odd guest conductor spot with the IVE.
Bernius and the ensemble are bringing an adventurous repertoire to the Elma Hotel when they open the festival proceedings on April 27, at 6 p.m. The a cappella program features renditions of several 20th-century works, such as Lux Aeterna by Ligeti, Liberté – the last movement of Francis Poulenc’s work Figure Humaine and Da Pacem by Estonian composer Arvo Part. The eclectic roster also takes in compositions from further down the musical history line, by early 19th-century opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, compatriot contemporary Otto Nicolai and Mendelssohn.

Building a reputation through the years

As a choir that has gained a reputation not only for the quality of its work but also for the breadth of its offerings that, temporally, start from the 17th century right up to the here and now, perhaps the multifarious nature of its Elma concert should come as too big a surprise. But it is still impressive. “And we are performing a piece by Giacomo Meyerbeer. I think that was never before performed in Israel,” Bernius notes.

BERNIUS IS, of course, a consummate professional with a wealth of experience in the field. Even so, addressing some of the wide spectra of material across such differing styles must be a challenging proposition. Rather than shedding light on the choir’s concert preliminaries, Bernius prefers to highlight some of the historical backdrops to the works. That also references the Holocaust and discrimination against what the Nazis categorized as “entartete kunst” or degenerate art.

“After the Second World War, Mendelssohn was not accepted, because the Nazis did not perform Mendelssohn,” he explains.
The early Romantic-era German composer was born Jewish. The fact that he was baptized at the age of seven did not save his oeuvre from blanket denunciation between 1933 and 1945. “It took a long time to bring him back, also in the 50s and 60s,” Bernius adds. He did his utmost to help redress that deplorable state of affairs. “I recorded the whole of Mendelssohn’s music. He is one of my most important composers, since the 1970s. I am very familiar with his music so in terms of preparation, it does not take me very much time to get ready for a concert of his work.”
Germany’s recent dark past comes up several times in our conversation and Bernius says he is particularly keen to keep up with his regular visits to this part of the world. “As a German, it is an important task to do my best job, to have a good connection [with Israel] and to work together. I am proud to be invited to Israel so often.”
The choir conductor belongs to the generation that eventually woke up to the fact that their parents and grandparents lived through World War II and may have been actively involved in Nazi crimes. At the very least, they were around when it was happening.
“I was born in 1947. It is not easy to talk about the situation [in Nazi Germany]. I sometimes sense we lost an important part of Germany. Some of the best people emigrated from Germany. That is really a shame.” I presumed the use of such a delicate epithet was the result of Bernius’s slightly less-than-mother-tongue command of English and that he was referring to the Jewish musicians who did not hang around to be murdered in concentration camps. He says he does his best to redress at least some of that loss to German cultural life. “I try to compensate, as good as I can, through good cooperation. It is not easy.”

ON A very note, it can’t be easy keeping a choir going and up there with the best, for over half a century. “My mother was a church musician, so I think starting with music was an influence from her,” Bernius explains. Back in 1968, he was at a conservatory in Stuttgart studying violin and organ. He was looking to take his instrumental expertise and knowledge and run with it, in a specific vocal direction. “I wanted to go with my musical experience and build a group of voices. Singing in an ensemble should be comparable with playing in an orchestra – the sound of the instruments.”

That is an intriguing ethos, particularly when in the jazz field vocalists often talk about trying to emulate the sound and texture of one instrument or other. Bernius was looking to take the opposite sonic route. It has its challenges. “Strings are closer together; it is not so difficult to find a common sound. But singers are individualists. Singers have to sing vowels, which are very different – the ‘I’ is very different from the ‘E’ and so on. This is much more complicated to find a common sound.”
Bernius has been at it with hundreds of chorists over all these years, generally working with young musicians before they launch their professional careers and are more set in their musical ways. “I don’t work with people who have been doing this with ensembles, professional choirs, their whole life. I am not that kind of conductor. Yes, you don’t sing the same way when you are 55 as you do when you are 35,” he says.
Even so, he feels the shortfall on the maturity side is offset by the benefits to be had from working with younger vocalists that are flexible and open to new ideas. “I like to work with freelance musicians.”That free-flowing philosophy translates into an eclectic approach to repertoire and also, no doubt, to the performance level, too.
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