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The Zemel Choir: Zemel Goes Stateside

 

The Zemel Choir: Celebrate With Song

Sacred Days of Strasbourg

Click on the flyer to find out about this multi-faith event we are performing in

Drawing Life

 

December 21, 2011, 4:30pm 

Berlin Celebrates Louis Lewandowki Festival

By A.J. Goldmann

 

This past weekend in Berlin, eight choirs from four continents took part in the first ever Louis Lewandowski Festival, named for the famed music director of Berlin’s New Synagogue in the late 19th century.
The choristers hailed from Jerusalem to Johannesburg and Boston to Zürich, with detours to Strasbourg, Toronto and London. The headlining group was the Berlin Synagogal Chor, who performs Lewandowski’s Shabbat service on a weekly basis at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in former West Berlin.
Lewandowski (1821–1894) was arguably the most important and influential reformer of synagogue liturgy. He was the first to introduce the call-and-response between cantor and choir and many of his melodies are still familiar today.
Born into an impoverished family in Poznan, Lewandowski went to Berlin at the age of 12. He displayed remarkable musical ability and was the first Jewish student accepted into the Berlin Academy of Arts. Illness prevented Lewandowski from pursuing a professional secular career. During his convalescence he strengthened his ties to the Berlin Jewish Community by leading various synagogue choirs. In 1840, he was appointed music director at the Old Synagogue, a post he held until 1866, when he moved to the New Synagogue in their newly built building on Oranienburger Strasse. His duties included composing, arranging, conducting and playing the organ at the largest and most influential Jewish house of worship in Germany. While there, he published “Kol Rinah,” for solo and two-part voice, and “Todah Vezimrah” for full choir and Cantor. These pieces remain among his best-known to this day.
Lewandowski was not, however, without his critics, who perceived assimilationist impulses lurking behind his reforms. Those who decried his lush Romantic style advocated instead a return to the ancient sources of the Jewish liturgy.
“He turned Jewish prayer into a musical experience,” Hermann Simon, director of the New Synagogue Foundation, said in an interview with the German-Jewish newspaper “Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung.” “He expressed the newfound self-confidence of Jews in the 19th Century and lent new vitality to Jewish liturgy,” continued Simon, who grew up hearing Lewandoski’s melodies at the Rykestrasse Synagogue in former East Berlin.
The Rykestrasse Synagogue, currently the largest functioning synagogue in Germany, was the venue chosen for the Lewandowski Festival’s closing concert on Sunday night.
The Rykestrasse Synagogue escaped Kristallnacht with minimal damage to the building. During the Second World War, the Nazis used the building for storage. The neo-Romanesque building, located in an elegant courtyard, was restored in 2007 and is to this day a conservative synagogue, though its 1,000 plus seats are mostly empty.
It was, thus, a delight to see the sanctuary filled for the concert, which included works by Lewandowski and his contemporaries, including Salomon Sulzer, Abraham Ber Birnbaum, Samuel Naumbourg and Eduard Birnbaum.
The best-prepared choirs were able to surmount the acoustical limitations of the building. Among these were the Zemel Choir of London, the Zamir Chorale of Boston and the Polyphonies Hébraïques de Strasbourg. Most numbers were supported by organ or piano. In few cases, such as the Synogogenchor Zürich, pieces were performed a capella.
When all the choirs joined in for the opening Ma Tovu and the closing Adon Olam, the synagogue vibrated with hundreds of voices. It was a neat trick, the kind one usually finds with performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. All in all, it was an event that, like many a Jewish prayer service, had moments both transcendent and shleppy. 

 

Ensemble

 

A Sparkling Concert

Sabbath music from the Zemel Choir,
enjoyed by MALCOLM MILLER

 

Shir L’Shabbat (‘Song for the Sabbath’) was an apt title for a sparklingconcert of Jewish choral music by the Zemel Choir [8 November 2009] that featured a fascinating tapestry of 20th-21st century Sabbath Evening liturgical settings. The concert was conducted by the choir’s Musical Director, the charismatic multi-talented Ben Wolf, whose owncompositions were also featured. The capacity crowd in the communal hall of Belsize Square Synagogue in North-West London, UK, was also regaled with a lighter and more participative second half consisting mainly of different settings of the same Sabbath hymn Adon Olam, (‘Master of Worlds’). As a delightful interlude we were feasted by close harmony arrangements sung with suave swinging sophistication by the ‘Boybershop Quartet’: Ben Wolf joined by the evening’s three outstanding cantorial soloists, Elliot Alderman, Marc Finer and Ben Kahn.

Traditionally the Sabbath Evening service is one of the musical highlights of the Jewish calendar, music’s uplifting spirit adding to the joyful spirituality of the occasion. There are numerous settings of hymns and prayers from the service as well as complete ‘composed’ services. The programme aimed to give a taste of the variety of styles from past and present, including works by émigré composers from Europe in the 1930s, who found refuge in the USA, and British Mandate Palestine. To enhance continuity and coherence, there was no applause for the first half, which also helped one compare styles.

To begin was the aptly ebullient, popular Sabbath table song Yom Zeh L’Yisrael, in a snappy arrangement by the Zemel’s first conductor, Dudley Cohen. His son Jacques Cohen, also a composer and conductor, set the biblical text Ma Tovu (‘How Goodly’) which opens the service, for Hertford College, Oxford. Here its skilfully melifluous textures flowed eloquently in the Zemel’s rendition, which highlighted an intriguing resemblance between its descending motif and that of Louis Lewandowski’s more familiar setting.

There followed L’chu N’ran’nah (Psalm 95) in the first of several settings by Heinrich Shalit, in which soloist Elliot Alderman produced a bold recitative in dialogue with the grandiose choir. Shalit, a Viennesecomposer who studied with Fuchs, Mahler’s teacher, was the choirmaster of the Munich synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazisduring World War II. It is commemorated today by a monument, whilst only a few years ago a new Synagogue and Community Centre was recently inaugurated in the heart of Munich as an official restoration of the city’s community. It was Shalit who introduced the composer Paul Frankenburger to Jewish texts and music: Frankenburger emigrated to Palestine, changed his name to Ben-Haim, and became Israel’s leading composer. Shalit emigrated to the USA where he continued his career as a synagogue composer. His L’cha Dodi shows the synthesis of an oriental melody with modern harmonies, here performed with plenty of interaction between soloist Benjamin Cahn and the choir, while in hisAdonai Malach (Psalm 93), Eliot Alderman’s rich tenor was richly supported by the organ, played (as throughout) by Martin Clayton.

We also heard stirring extracts from two complete ‘composed’ services, ‘Mi Chamocho’ (‘Who is like unto You’) from Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service (1933), with Benjamin Cahn as cantor solo, and the ‘Haskiveynu’ from Castelnuovo-Tedescos’s Sacred Service (1934/44). The Italiancomposer had rediscovered his Jewish roots in the 1920s, and emigrated to the USA where he became a leading Hollywood composer. Bloch, though he had come to the USA as early as 1916, moved back to his native Switzerland to compose his Sacred Service, which had been commissioned in New York by Gerald Warburg.

Another émigré, Isadore Freed emigrated from his native Russia at the age of three in 1903 to the USA where he became one of the leading American synagogue composers and theorists of synagogue modes. This was evident in the Zemel’s selection of his works, Shiru L’Adonay(Psalm 93), the gentle ‘M’Chalkeil Chayim’ from the central ‘Amidah’ Prayer (the ‘Eighteen Blessings’) and ‘V’Anachnu’ from the Aleynu (the concluding prayer).

Another intriguing early setting was the ‘Yih-yu Ratzon’ by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, known as the father of Jewish musicology. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Idelsohn recorded and transcribed Jewish melodies in Palestine, collected in a vast thesaurus published in the 1930s. This setting was a workable arrangement of the prefatorial prayer before the Amidah. Best known of all the émigrés was Kurt Weill, whoseKiddush (‘Sanctification’) is regularly performed by the Zemel and many other choirs, and sets the familiar blessing for wine in a catchy blues tune shared between cantor, here the mellifluous Eliot Alderman, and flowing choral textures.

A lilting attractive setting of Tov L Hodot (Psalm 92) by Ben Wolf featured expressive solo sections for cantor, with magical modulations. To complete the mosaic were two numbers from a Sabbath Cantata by Itai Daniel, a French composer. The Shma Yisrael (‘Hear O Israel’) was challenging, if anachronistic, its main text set to a rich four part fugue; theAdon Olam to conclude was dense in texture with a poetic final couplet for women’s voices.

The Adon Olam is the traditional hymn to conclude the service, and has been set in a myriad guises, a selection of which formed the focus of the lighter second half. To begin was a version by Salomone di Rossi, the Monteverdi contemporary and composer of the first Hebrew art music for the seventeenth century Mantuan Jewish community. For his antiphonal setting, the Zemel exchanged phrases divided between the front and back of the hall. The audience joined in heartily in more familiar arrangements, by Louis Lewandowksi, Waley and the Sephardi David de Sola. Within the witty barbershop interlude we also savoured some entertaining versions, yet the concert as a whole culminated with Ben Wolf’s own appealing setting, its riveting rhythms conveyed with aplomb by the Zemel with Amy Finer as soloist. A jaunty setting by the American Yiddish composer Shalom Secunda had the whole audience participating, as also in the British and Israeli national anthems, in honour of Remembrance Sunday and the eve of the Krystallnacht Anniversary. Yet the buoyant melodies of Adon Olam continued to ring brightly in our ears as we exited the hall to a cool autumn evening.

 

Something for Everyone

An evening with the Zemel Choir

reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER

 

One of the exciting and distinctive aspects of Jewish music as a genre, whether of art or religious music, folk or popular, is its colourful diversity, which reflects the wide ranging diasporic experiences of its producers and consumers, and their inherently multi-cultural identity. And there was something for everyone in the Zemel Choir’s recent concert at Belsize Square Synagogue, London NW3, UK, on Sunday 12 November 2006, conducted by ebullient musical director Benjamin Wolf, with star appearances by three cantorial soloists. The programme ranged from traditional Hazzanut (cantorial singing), through Israeli choral and folk music, to a stimulating selection of 20th century European synagogue music, lighter barbershop quartets and ‘Hanuka’ songs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Benjamin Wolf conducts the Zemel Choir
Perhaps the highlights were the two Yiddish works in which the choir previewed their forthcoming South Bank appearance on 26 November (details given below). The first was a chorus fromKing Ahaz, the first ever Yiddish opera, composed in 1911 by Samuel Alman, based on an Old Testament story. Alman, originally from Russia and choirmaster at the Hampstead Synagogue, is best known for his liturgical compositions, one of which was sung by the promising young tenor Eliot Alderman and the choir; its lilting melody reminiscent of Italian opera. TheKing Ahazchorus from Act II began as if a Yiddish folk song, full of buoyancy and lively rhythms, then settled into a rich bloc-textured harmony. The choir urges an idolatrous sacrifice to music and text which evokes the different notes of the shofar or ram’s horn. The Zemel Choir’s intonation was excellent here, with homogenous articulation contributing to a powerful and expressive effect; the young baritone Benjamin Seifert was a noble and strong soloist. He was also in superb form as the soloist in the Yiddish version of the famous ‘Policeman’s Song’ fromPirates of Penzance, in which each verse in English was followed by its Yiddish version, with the audience in enthusiastic participation as an echoing chorus and singing the refrain: it was surely a first of its kind! This translation, by the American Al Grand, has seen recent ‘off Broadway’ productions, while Yiddish G&S in general has quite a remarkable tradition in the USA.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
The concert had begun with a bang in the energetic robust textures of the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s Roni Akara, a setting of Isaiah Chapter 54, the second movement of which is a repeated ground bass, sung by a confident bass section, overlaid with ever intensifying strands from tenors, altos and sopranos, all woven into a thrilling climax. Benjamin Wolf’s own setting of Ma Tovu (‘How Goodly Are Thy Tents’) that followed, received an impressive world première. Its well-proportioned ternary form allowed the melodic inventiveness full rein, the melismatic outer sections enveloping a more sustained central section, with appealingly bright harmony that took some delightfully unexpected twists and turns along the way.                                                                      
The Barbershop Quartet. From left to right: Marc Finer, Benjamin Wolf, Elliot Alderman, Ben Seifert
The other main fare of the first half was a selection from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sabbath Eve Service, sung in turn by tenors Eliot Alderman and Marc Finer. Challenging for the choir on account of the many imitative textures and intriguing modally inflected harmony, the pieces were progressively more finely coordinated, and contrasted by the reflective Shiviti, a psalm setting from the memorial prayer, in which the pure tonal harmony is tinged with plangent dissonance. A surprising moment came when conductor Benjamin Wolf announced his own participation in a newly formed Barbershop ensemble … which then gave suavely flowing accounts of two Lewandowski settings, Tsadik Katamar(‘The Righteous will flourish’ — Psalm 92) and Halleluja, a wedding favourite.                                                                                                                                                           
The vocal quartet returned at the end to sing some lighter selections from the Yale Song Book, a standard, and a Flanders and Swann witticism. There was a touch of traditional chazanut in Eliot Alderman’s stirring renditions of beautiful settings by A Bernstein and Shalom Secunda of prayers recited before and after the reading of the scriptures in the Sabbath service, for which the Zemel took on the role of a humming synagogue choir. Especially entertaining was Ben Seifert’s imposing performance of Go Down Moses in a compelling Gordon Jacob arrangement that allowed the basses plenty of action, and in Copland’s evocative version of The Boatmen’s Dance, a 19th century minstrel song ingeniously re-arranged for choir and soloist by Irving Fine.                            
Benjamin Wolf conducts the Zemel Choir
A seasonal Hanukah medley rounded off a highly colourful and varied programme, the Sephardi Ocho Kendelikas and a witty rock’n’roll version of the children’s song, I have a little Dreidl, with the tenor Marc Finer in Elvis-style dark sunglasses. The warm reception from the capacity audience was amply rewarded by the exuberant encore, a Sephardi version of Yom Ze Le’Yisrael, a Sabbath table hymn, sung by the solo trio and chorus. The concert augured well for the Zemel’s forthcoming South Bank appearance, in the Purcell Room on 26 November 2006 (details at www.jmi.org.uk), to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of Jews in Britain, where the programme will include more extracts from Alman’s Yiddish opera King Ahaz and the Yiddish Pirates of Penzance. An event not to be missed!