The passion of singing

Soprano Yeela Avital takes part in a Bach oratorio at the MustonenFest.

Yeela Avital (photo credit: MERAV HADAR)
Yeela Avital
(photo credit: MERAV HADAR)
Yeela Avital is faithful – true to the written word. That’s not a bad attribute for Avital to have, considering she earns a living mainly from singing early music.
The 39-year-old Jerusalem-born soprano will be one of the star turns in the upcoming rendition of Bach’s oratorio St. John Passion, which will take place as part of the Israeli leg of this year’s MustonenFest. Avital will be joined on stage by compatriot alto Avital Dery and Estonians Endrik Uksvarav (tenor) and Alvar Tiisler (baritone), with festival founder and artistic director Andres Mustonen wielding his conductor’s baton. The sonic endeavor will be enhanced by the Israel Chamber Orchestra, while Mustonen is bringing over yet another wonderful vocal ensemble from his native Estonia, The Tallinn Boys’ Choir, conducted by Lydia Rahula.
Avital says she leans towards the cozier side of her art form.
“I feel that this [early] music should be performed either in a church or in a home setting. This music is for small ensembles. Maybe Handel’s music is right for larger venues. I am more a fan of early Baroque music – Purcell and Monteverdi and such,” she says.
She is also an ardent admirer of Bach’s work.
“I am drawn to the complexity of his compositions, which I don’t find anywhere else,” she declares. “The harmonic complexity of his material is simply unique. You only find that with Bach. There is such depth to what he wrote, including his texts.”
The singer attributes part of that to the composer’s religiosity.
“I can really feel his faith. He was a true believer [in Christianity].”
Avital says not being Christian herself is not a problem when it comes to rendering St. John Passion in a convincing manner.
“I can connect with faith as faith, whether it’s faith in Jesus or belief in, say, love or anything else. You can get a strong sense of Bach’s faith in his music, the depth of religion for him,” she says.
The singer says there is a lighter side to the early 18th-century composer’s ethos.
“I really like the other side of Bach, with all his secular work and his humorous side, like the Coffee Cantata,” she notes, referring to an entertaining number based on a fun interchange between a father and a daughter in which the former exhorts his offspring to give up her caffeine addiction.
While that may seem to be a far cry from works such as Bach’s ever-popular Magnificat, which is mostly based on a text taken from the Book of Luke, or his stirring organ works, Avital says that the apparently contrasting avenues of creative articulation are, in fact, complementary.
“Bach’s humoristic philosophy of life is the flip side of his other work. It is really the same thing. It is the same deep and clever approach, just about two completely different things,” she notes.
Having the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings in a whimsical way can help to obviate a sense of heaviness that may come across in sacred works. But Avital relates to Bach’s church-oriented output from a purely professional angle.
“I don’t look at this as religion per se. I look at these works as something that expresses a particular emotion or a particular perspective on something,” she says.
Avital developed a predilection for Baroque music early on and began performing works by Bach and his contemporaries as a young girl.
“It started with the Ankor Choir [for girls aged 11 to 18] in Jerusalem. I just got back from giving a lesson to the choir,” Avital laughs.
The choir operates under the aegis of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and performs works from the Renaissance era through to the here and now, specializing in material by Israeli composers.
Early music quickly cast its spell over the teenager, and Avital says she is just as taken with it today, a quarter of a century on.
“I really love the intimacy of this music. I like addressing the micro, not the macro – the word, the sound, the nature of the sound. Everything is much smaller. I like the immediacy of the connection between the text and the sound. When Bach writes about something painful, there is [musical] dissonance. It is just so well presented,” she marvels.
Avital has enjoyed a long association with the Barrocade ensemble with which she recently performed in Estonia and Russia as part of the first segment of MustonenFest. The festival’s artistic director was on the podium on Tallinn, Tartu and St. Petersburg too.
“Andres is the epitome of music,” she states. “He leaves his imprint on everything he touches. I recently performed Stabat Mater [a hymn that was put to music by, among others, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Haydn, Verdi and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt], and I discovered a very different Stabat Mater. Andres is the music itself, and nothing gets in the way. That gives you so much inspiration. I feel very relaxed when he is in charge. That doesn’t happen with all conductors. With Andres, I know I am in safe hands.”
The inclusion of The Tallinn Boys’ Choir in the concert lineup is a boon for everyone involved. After attending several concerts in Estonia that featured choral music, it became abundantly clear that Mustonen’s homeland had a glorious heritage in vocal ensemble delivery. Avital is a fan.
“The Estonians relate to choral singing as an inseparable part of day-to- day life,” she says. “There is something about singing in unison, the togetherness, that is so important to Estonians.” Indeed, the evolving uprising against the Soviet presence in the Baltic state was sparked by the so-called “singing revolution,” which began from spontaneous mass nocturnal singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds in 1988.
“You can see how much the Estonians enjoy singing together,” notes Avital. “That is infectious.”
Avital will also star, alongside Barrocade, in the I Am Bach slot, at Kfar Shmaryahu on February 21, Tel Aviv Museum on the following two days, and at Kiryat Yearim Church, Abu Gosh on February 25.
The concerts take place on February 26 at the Ashdod Music Center; February 27 and March 1 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For tickets and more information: Ashdod (08) 956-8111; Tel Aviv (03) 518-8845 and http://