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Refreshing Surprises

A concert in London by the Zemel Choir,


A former Head Chorister of Westminster Abbey singing solo in Hebrew with Britain's leading Jewish mixed voice choir? A South London Church Choir interpreting Jewish liturgical music? A Jewish Children Choir performing Bill Withers' 70s hit Lean on Me? These were but some of the refreshing surprises and highlights of Celebrate with Song 2009, the Zemel Choir's annual St Johns Smith Square concert on 14 June 2009, given before a capacity audience, and presented in association with Spiro Ark. Under the direction of their charismatic Musical Director Ben Wolf, the Zemel displayed their choral qualities of energy, enthusiasm and expressivity and brought alive, with precision and nuance, a varied and challenging programme of American Jewish music ranging from classical and liturgical to folk and stage music, including an ebullient account of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and the jazzy Kiddush by Kurt Weill with Cantor Robert Brody as the outstanding tenor soloist.

Cantor Robert Brody at the concert on 14 June 2009, with his wife Linda to the left
Cantor Robert Brody at the concert on 14 June 2009, with his wife Linda to the left

The Zemel has an illustrious history dating back over fifty years, with international tours and recordings initiated in the 1950s by the founding Musical Director Dudley Cohen, through successive conductors including Anthony Saunders and Malcolm Singer, to the incumbent Ben Wolf, who is a composer, scholar and pianist to boot. Each of the Musical Directors has taken the choir in new directions, and Ben Wolf's exciting achievement has been to expand the choir's horizons in several ways, firstly with workshop courses designed to bring in new choristers and refine vocal techniques, secondly with increasing creative collaborations with non-Jewish choirs and Youth Choirs, such as Quorum ( based at St Luke's in South London) and the City of London Choir, and third, through theme-based concerts such as last year's 10 centuries of Jewish Music! and, in this concert, Celebrating American Jewish Music, a varied programme which featured a wide variety of classical liturgical and popular works, from Copland, Bernstein and Kurt Weill and less familiar émigrés and younger American composers.

The Zemel Choir and conductor Ben Wolf at St John's Smith Square in London
The Zemel Choir and conductor Ben Wolf at St John's Smith Square in London

In their opening work, the folk-inspired Zion's Walls by Aaron Copland, the Zemel's powerful projection exuded confidence and set a bright note for the entire evening. A light touch was maintained by Musical Director Ben Wolf whose witty compering regaled the audience during stage shifts, and highlighted the dedication of two attractive liturgical works to worthy charity organisations JACCS and B'nai Brith, whose supporters were amongst the audience. The first was an evocative and inspiring jazzy setting of Psalm 121 by the prolific New York composer Steve Cohen, followed by the Avinu Malkaynu ('Our Father Our King') prayer in a moving setting by Max Janowski (1912-1991), who, as explained in Gary Tucker's erudite programme notes, was a seminal liturgical composer and one of the émigrés to New York and Chicago from Berlin in the 1930s. Both were eloquently sung by Zemel soprano Louise Barnett, supported warmly by the choir and their piano accompanist Michael Cayton, who throughout the evening enhanced the sonorous ambience with character and impetus.

Louise Barnett (front centre, with black hair)
Louise Barnett (front centre, with black hair)

The fruits of recent Zemel 'workshops' were shown in a set of three songs in each half of the programme; in the first the influx of participants added richness to the sonority of two catchy Sephardi paraliturgical songs, Cuando El Rey Nimrod and Yom Zeh L'Yisrael, in dialogue with the resilient tenor voice of Cantor Robert Brody. As sparkling contrast, Zemel soprano Ann Sadan was soloist in Lebn Zol Columbus ('Long Live Columbus'), a witty Yiddish folksong reflecting the era of the early Jewish immigrant to the USA from Russia, enhanced by sparkling choral refrains. In the second half, the enhanced chorus livened the mood with upbeat accounts of Weill's Mack the Knife, Gershwin's Summertime and the tongue twisting Chanukah in Santa Monica, one of Tom Lehrer's witty patter songs, in which the choir's diction was amazingly clear.

Especially fascinating was the chance to hear two serious liturgical works by émigré American composers sung with finesse by Quorum, a finely honed church choir making their début in this repertoire. They brought tonal intensity and beauty to the lilting modal melodies of Shachar Avakeshcha by Isadore Freed (1900-1960), a Russian-born Philadelphia-based composer who had studied in Europe with Bloch and Boulanger. Equally poignant was their atmospheric rendition of V'Shamru (from the Sabbath Evening Liturgy) by Heinrich Schalit, an important American liturgical composer who had studied with the same teacher as Mahler and who fled his native Munich in the 1930s. Joined by Ben Wolf, Quorum dashed off a delicate Gershwin classic, I Got Rhythm, before their final superb collaboration with Ann Sadan in a Hassidic style Yiddish song A Nign.

The second half featured the Zemel in some attractive American-Jewish Broadway favourites, such as If I was a Rich man, and Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head, whilst turning to liturgical style we enjoyed the Havdalah by Zavel Zilberts (1881-1949), and Kurt Weill's memorable Kiddush, whose blues-inflected melody was shared delightfully between Cantor Robert Brody's resilient tenor voice and the Zemel's richly blended textures.

Members of the Zemel Choir and the City of London Choir sing Leonard Bernstein's 'Chichester Psalms'
Members of the Zemel Choir and the City of London Choir sing Leonard Bernstein's 'Chichester Psalms'

The Zemel were joined by members of the City of London Choir for the climactic work, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, perhaps amongst the most popular of his choral pieces, given an admirably driving and upbeat rendition in the original Hebrew always clearly enunciated. In the soulful slow central movement a superb treble soloist Benedict Kearns produced a thrilling purity of tone which both contrasted and complemented the richer vibrancy of the women's voices pitted against the incisive attack of the men, despite occasional problems of coordination with organ resulting from the sometimes over-reverberative acoustics of the spacious Baroque hall. The first movement was suitably driving and propulsive, while polyphonic interweaving of the last movement's lyrical lines, which followed Michael Cayton's arresting account of the acerbic organ interlude, flowed with suppleness. The final astringent a capella setting of the verse 'How goodly are thy Tents, O Jacob' formed an impressively dramatic conclusion to an admirable performance of this challenging masterpiece.

The Yavneh College Singers
The Yavneh College Singers

If the Bernstein was the weightiest work of the evening, it was the children's choir which stole the audience's hearts, a group of under-fourteen pupils of a Hertsmere school who, as The Yavneh College Singers, recently won the Best Youth Choir prize at the North London Music Festival. They opened with a touching Bilvavi ('In My Heart') composed by one of the choir's directors Stephen Levey, in memory of Yoni Resner, a young victim of a Tel Aviv bus bomb in 2004. The rich harmonisations continued to flow in the more upbeat pop style of When You Believe by film composer Stephen Schwartz, ending with the zestful swing rhythms of Bill Withers' hit song Lean on Me, enhanced by some deft choreography. They then joined the Zemel in the high energy setting of V'Shamru by Meir Finkelstein, one of the USA's most popular liturgical tunesmiths, with Cantor Robert Brody as the soloist, his shining timbre again resounding across the spacious architecture in the rousing encore, Adon Olam ('Master of Worlds'), the concluding Hymn of the Sabbath Service, in which all performers and audience joined in with panache: it formed an aptly optimistic way to round off an evening of beauty, inspiration and refreshing surprises.

Copyright © 17 June 2009 Malcolm Miller,
London UK


















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