Rinat: Time for Harvest
Rinat Choir as the Turning Point in our Musical Lives
The meteoric emergence of the Rinat choir in the mid-fifties was undoubtedly a watershed in the history of choral culture in Israel in particular, and of our music life in general. It was a feast of choral sound; of tireless effort to attain purity and technical precision as manifestation of uncompromising search for truth in the artistic statement; of a profound richly varied and exciting repertoire; of sensitive interpretation, strongly expressed yet finely nuanced and inspired. This and more, for there was also a process of mutual enrichment between deep-rooted involvement in Israeli culture and musical cultural universality and historic pluralism.
Rinat was the first to establish new standards in all spheres and these are still distinctly felt in all choral activities in Israel. Many young conductors and directors of Israeli choirs today are unaware, and to a great extent cannot be aware, of the debt they owe the pioneering work of Rinat: the pre-Rinat quality of repertoire and performance is gone forever, mainly due to Rinat’s emergence. Anyone entering the field of choral music nowadays, finds himself, knowingly or not, at a post-Rinat starting point. Indeed, many of Rinat’s then freshly established standards are simply taken for granted today – which is as it should be. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gary Bertini virtually revolutionized our cultural standards, as performers and listeners alike. The measure of success of such revolution can be judged by the extent to which its distinctive features are incorporated into the fabric of the living culture and become an integral part of it: as if they have always been there, as if things could not be different. Any overt acknowledgement and appreciation of such a change would negate its integration, the very nature of the it-goes-without-saying.
Whatever artistic achievement in the field of choral singing pre-dated Rinat, such as the work of Eytan Lustig in Tel Aviv or of Yehuda Sharett within the Kibbutz Movement, not only do not detract but clearly enhance the importance of the revolution brought about by Gary Bertini. Some of the distinctive features of Rinat were: most of its singers were Israeli born; its repertoire was almost entirely a cappella; most of its members were trained musicians; proficient note-readers and some (sadly too few) were even professional singers. Still, what made it really special was the general standard of its performance. There was such drastic change for the better that it elevated by several degrees at once the niveau of choral music in Israel: it was a phenomenon from some other world the likes of which had not been heard here before.
The Essence of Bertini's Choral Revolution
A. Focusing on a cappella repertoire: as already stated, Rinat was the first choir in Israel which based its repertoire on a cappella works. This was a courageous innovation and presented a challenge the exigencies of which cannot be overestimated: only professionals of the first rank can possibly assure the measure of purity required for singing in tune without instrumental back-up. The decision to focus on a cappel/a works points to a definite tendency in the repertoire: the music of the 18th and 19th century, which until then was the staple of the repertoire of all choirs in Israel usually requires instrumental accompaniment and so Rinat resorted to it only rarely. On the other hand, the a cappe/la repertoire is to be found mostly either in the choral literature of the Renaissance (15th and 16th century) or in the music of the 20th century. It was, in fact, in the fertile soil of these polarized repertoire zones that Rinat’s activities flourished and flowered.
B. The “discovery” of Renaissance polyphony: the secular madrigal and the liturgical motet written between 1400 and 1650. Gary bertini spread before us the magnificent polyphony of the giants of that time: Palestrina, Lasso, Monteverdi, Gesualdo and others in Italy; Josquin des Pres, Janequin and some others in France; de Victoria in Spain; Dowland, Morley and Wilbye in England. A whole world of hitherto unknown enchantments: treasure troves of beauty, sophistication, intense emotions and powerful expression; refined and utterly entrancing. It was music of great purity and clarity in the fullest meaning of both these words. This wonderful musical literature was brought to us to stay, to enrich our lives forever and be the corner-stone of any choral activity that we may undertake. There is not a choir in Israel today whose repertoire does not include some of this music. If for naught else then for this alone all of us, choristers and listeners alike, owe Gary Bertini’s Rinat a debt of gratitude.
C. The artistic nurturing of traditional monodic repertoire: Side by side with the achievement in bringing us the best of polyphonic art, there is particular importance in the careful treatment by Rinat of the art of monodic singing. This too was a pioneering step: the most professional of Israel’s choirs commanding an impressive polyphonic repertoire, took the time and the trouble to delve into and perform traditional monodic songs of various Jewish communities: those of Spain (Sephardi), of Central and Eastern Europe (Ashkenazy) and of the Jews of Yemen – none of them arranged for performance by a mixed choir. It amounted to an artistic and cultural statement of first magnitude, both musically and from the point of view of national heritage. This was going back to the very roots; drawing clear water from the depth of the source; shaping the material with care, mindful of each melisma as becomes a choir which does not relinquish a whit of its professionalism even when – or possibly because – it is working on popular, traditional and monophonic material.
D. Contemporary music: Equally important is Rinat’s part in performing the best of choral music literature of the 20th century. What Israeli choir prior to Bertini’s Rinat dared to tackle the music of Luigi Dallapiccola for one? The performance of tonal works of such masters as Ravel and Britten was also something new and rather daring in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s.
E. Israeli art music: Rinat’s contribution to the advancement and presentation of Israeli choral compositions was decisive. Works by Ben-Haim and Partos; by Ehrlich and Avidom and many others were given performances that were milestones in bringing them to the notice of audiences. Rinat commissioned works for its own use and even sponsored a competition for the composition of Israeli choral work.
Moreover, Rinat’s very existence caused music to be composed especially for it and to be dedicated to 1t without being commissioned. It also inspired a great many arrangements of existing works to be written to suit the special characteristics of a choir which religiously adhered to the principle that an Israeli work be included in every new programme they presented.
F. The music of Mordecai Seter -The bond between composer andperformer: In the chapter of the splendid service Rinat rendered original Israeli composition, a special place must be reserved for its performance of works by Mordecai Seter, the most profound of our composers in the few recent decades. His strongly expressive, rather weighty choral works: Motets, Festive Songs, Midnight Vigil and others, presented exciting challenges to Rinat in intensity of both sound and emotions. The challenge strained the choir’s potential resources to the limit, requiring it to do its utmost in technique and expressivity One might say that contending with Seter’s music consolidated and strengthened the choir so that it was capable of successfully facing challenges presented by music of quite different styles and periods. However, the interaction was reciprocal in the fullest sense of the word: Gary Bertini and Rinat gave Seter’s work the benefit of optimal performance drawing power from the inspiration of the composer’s actual presence. Such performances realize the potential of the composition written as a living experience, through which the composer finds a channel of communication with contemporary audiences. Had Rinat’s contribution been confined only to Seter’s choral works, we should still say be content!
G. Singularity of Bertini’s interpretation – Master of the Musical Phrase: Gary Bertini was (and remains) a true sculptor and a shaper of the musical phrase. There are no limits to the finesse of attentiveness and the acuteness of discernment revealed in his treatment of the elusive secrets of every phrase, with all the hidden beauties and individual traits which make it different from any other phrase. He is blessed with a most sensitive musical seismograph which allows him to locate, with supreme precision, the focal points of static and dynamic energy which are inescapably dictated by internal relations of the components of the phrase, and by the external ones between it and other phrases. It seems to me that all other attributes of his interpretation stem directly or indirectly from this basic fact: the total awareness of the senses to the living and breathing phrase.
This artistic integrity and sensitivity was both impressive and infectious. It affected not only the entire choir body who internalized it and to whom it became second nature, but it also affected the regular audiences of Rinat’s concerts. If phrases in a work differ from one another, the difference is incomparably greater between phrases typical of different composers, genres, periods and a variety of styles. Actually, Bertini’s reading is distinguished by an individual style of performance for every period and for each composer. Thus, for instance, the Renaissance phrase imposes, as a rule, a rounded morendo towards the end. Yet the central aspect of Renaissance polyphony lies in the non-simultaneous distribution of such endings among the different parts. By comparison, other styles shape phrases so that their intensity grows towards the end, and does so simultaneously in all parts. The diversity of Rinat’s performing styles did not fall short of the variety of material it performed.
Rinat through the Eyes of a Groupie
A short personal confession may be in order here. In all that concerns Rinat under Bertini I cannot and I do not want to be objective (if there is such a thing as objectivity… ). Rinat of the 1950s and the 1960s is part of the most earthshaking musical discoveries of my youth. I still remember the stunned amazement with which I was left after the first concert of Rinat which took place at the old Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard (May 1956, on the eve of the choir’s first tour abroad). Growing up in Israel in those years, not only had we never heard such singing before, but we could not even imagine such quality of the art was possible.
Seter’s MOTETS on the one hand and LE CHANT DES OYSEAUX of Janequin from the 16th century on the other and all that falls between them, with the variety (range) of performance styles required by the material – opened up for us wholly unexpected horizons. From that first meaning of the word, which was unknown 1n Hebrew at the time. I did not miss a single concert in Tel Aviv including repeat performances of the same programme; never too weary and ever thirsting for more, I often travelled to another town to listen time and again to the electrifying performance of the marvellous repertoire.
I cherished above all the special privilege Gary Bertini granted me he let me attend the choir’s rehearsals even when I was not a full member I shall always remember those lessons in music comprehension. Many of the listening habits and critical standards for performance which I have acquired 1n life were formed during those years, when I was about 20. The years 1n which I religiously attended every rehearsal of Rinat and followed the fascinating process of constructing the interpretation of each work, step after step after step.
Today, after many years of critical listening to concerts and to the most splendid recordings available now on the world market, I am able to appreciate to the full the high quality of the ‘school for music appreciation’ which Rinat has been for me and of the tuition I received there from its headmaster, Gary Bertini.
History does not Repeat Itself
Rinat was a phenomenon of its time. Thus, the madrigals and chansons of the 16th century which they performed fed on the fashion prevailing in the world in the 50s prior to that, performances and recording of this literature were few and far between, while today it has stepped outside the boundaries of choir singing and became the exclusive ‘property’ of vocal chamber ensembles, a single singer for each part. The then members of Rinat and their audiences are also indebted to the fact that the choir was active in that specific period of history, neither later or earlier. In many fields, had things been happening today they would be handled differently but not necessarily better.
Indeed, though history rolls along a road of no return, even today there is still much to be learned from the Rinat of those days. Those sounds of our yesterdays teach us not only “know whence thou art come”, but also “whither thou goes!”.
The article first appeared in the brochure to the CDs of Rinat Choir. The English version appeared in IMI News 94/2-3, pp. 8-9.