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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
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 from King 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. The King Ahaz chorus 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' from Pirates 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.

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Copyright © 18 November 2006 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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