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A Sparkling Concert

Sabbath music from the Zemel Choir,


Shir L'Shabbat ('Song for the Sabbath') was an apt title for a sparkling concert 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 own compositions 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, ('Lord of the Universe'). 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.

The Zemel Choir with Ben Wolf at Belsize Square Synagogue
The Zemel Choir with Ben Wolf at Belsize Square Synagogue

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 Schalit, in which soloist Elliot Alderman produced a bold recitative in dialogue with the grandiose choir. Schalit, a Viennese composer who studied with Fuchs, Mahler's teacher, was the choirmaster of the Munich synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis during 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 Schalit 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. Schalit 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 his Adonai 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 Italian composer 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, whose Kiddush ('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; the Adon 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.

Copyright © 30 November 2009 Malcolm Miller,
London UK





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