Florian Helgath likes to go the eclectic route. That much is patently evident from the program he has put together for his forthcoming stint with the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (IVE).
The German conductor makes his Israeli debut with the It’s Between Me and God four-concert tour of the country, taking in performances in Ra’anana, Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv from June 8-11.
Helgath says he is looking forward to taking a bow here, and getting down to business with the celebrated vocal troupe. “They have a very famous name and, of course, I have heard about them and I know [IVE founder conductor and musical director] Yuval Ben Ozer. I have followed what they have done. They are a wonderful ensemble. It is a great honor to be invited to conduct them.”
Working with the Israeli Vocal Ensemble
Indeed, the IVE has paid its dues and earned its spurs over the past 30 years. Even with that wealth of experience, it seems the choristers will have to be on their toes for their date with Helgath.
The standout item in the concert repertoire is Mass for a Double Choir by 20th-century Dutch-based Swiss composer Frank Martin, with works by Brahms, Hindemith and 76-year-old British composer Giles Swayne completing the lineup.
The 44-year-old conductor says he invested a lot of thought in the composition selection. “It took me quite [a] long [time] to find the right program. I had a lot of discussions with Yuval [Ben Ozer].”
It may have been a complicated business but the Martin work was already in place.
“He asked me if I would be willing to come to Tel Aviv, to work with his ensemble, with the mass for a double choir by Frank Martin. I said I would love to come to do that.”
Enthusiasm is a good starter but putting the idea into smooth, professional and alluring practice was going to be anything but plain sailing.
“It is great music, but it is one of the most challenging but also so wonderful. The mass for double choir is in my Top Five.”
Helgath adds that composing the piece was, for Martin, a labor of love.
“He didn’t write it for the audience. It is like a personal dialogue between him and God. It was just between God and him.”
The intimate nature of the piece meant that Martin was reluctant to have it performed for the general public.
“He felt nobody should hear it,” says Helgath. “This is very special.”
That explains the protracted hiatus between completion of the score and its first airing.
“This piece was premiered 50 years after he composed it,” Helgath notes.
In fact, Martin composed the mass between 1922-26, and it was unveiled to the world in 1963. That is still a very lengthy gestation term.
The Swiss composer was a devout Christian, which goes some way to explaining his reticence. But Helgath, for one, is delighted Martin eventually relented.
“It is a great work. It has all different varieties of music. There is some very soft music, and also very rhythmical and energetic parts. It has everything in it. It is like pure life!” Helgath enthuses.
He believes it has universal appeal.
“It is not too holy, not very liturgical. It is full of life. Like in life, you have different characters and situations. There is joy. There is energy in it.”
This has all the makings of special synergy.
“I am so looking forward to working with the choir on this piece. Only a very good choir can sing this piece.”
Clearly, the German feels the IVE is up to the task. “Vocally it is very virtuosic.”
With the Martin piece neatly slotted in, Helgath could get on with completing the programmatic picture.
“It is such a big work. The first step was quite easy,” he laughs. “Then I thought about what I could offer the audience, what I could bring from Germany to Israel. It was a bit difficult because we felt the program should not be too holy. I thought I should choose something in the folk style – not folk music, but classical music with a folk feel to it. Brahms is a romantic composer, and I thought it would be good to bring something from a German composer.”
The songs from Brahms’s opus 62 should appeal to wide tastes, and reference the folk-leaning factor along with more sophisticated counterpoint elements.
“Every choir sings them,” Helgath observes. “It is good music. It is so artful, but simple at the same time. It is not technically difficult but you can see the genius Brahms in it, the romantic color in every note.”
The German compositional contingent also includes six chansons by Paul Hindemith who fell foul of the Nazis after his atonal music was denounced by Goebbels as “degenerate.”
That, and the fact that his wife was of Jewish descent, led to the Hindemiths relocating to Switzerland, in 1938. There, Helgath explains, the composer could spread his writing wings.
“He felt free in Switzerland, personally and musically. You can really see that in his music.”
Snubbed by his homeland, Hindemith sought alternative cultural avenues to express himself.
“He chose French texts, not German,” Helgath continues. “It is very special at that time. He said, ‘I don’t want to connect with Germany.’”
That also produced fascinating oxymoronic creative fruits.
“He chose French, although he is a German composer. He thought it would be a good idea to bring that very special wonderful light character – like a chanson from a German composer.”
Swayne closer reflects Helgath’s musical mindset and his desire, as a member of the younger conducting crowd, to bring contemporary material into the concert circuit fold. That also impacts on the way he goes about his ensemble work and, even though he half-jokingly refers to himself as “middle-aged,” he is happy to be identified as a junior.
“I like that. There is this way of making music together. Maybe it is a younger generation thing.”
Not for Helgath the gravitas and deference of “the older folk.”
“I always try, as a conductor, to include the singers to make music together, to build something together. I am not a kind of old-fashioned sort of maestro, standing there and telling the singers what to do.”
It is, he says, a matter of balance and of following as democratic a line as the discipline allows.
“It is very delicate. Of course, I have my own musical ideas but when I am conducting a vocal ensemble for the first time, they make a musical offer to me. They show me their sound, their voices. We don’t sing my ideal of sound. It is a collaboration. I hear what the ensemble has to offer and I try to transform that, in a good way – together.”
For tickets and more information: (074) 701-2112, nive.co.il and https://ivocal.co.il