Judaism Does Indeed Sing!: Arrowhead Chorale at Weber Music Hall

Sam Black writes about a concert of Jewish choral music in Duluth; reprised in the Twin Cities in New Brighton, and St. Louis Park (at Beth El, at 7:30 Sunday evening). A choral tradition is shown off brilliantly in this series of performances.

For the first time in its fifteen-year history, Duluth’s Arrowhead Chorale offered a musical program coming entirely from the Jewish heart of Jewish composers. Some of the evening presented sacred settings, some was spirited music of daily life. But all of it was full of the Jewish personality from the sixteenth century to the current day.

Conductor and music director Stanley Wold selected twenty two different pieces of vocal music. Rabbi Amy Bernstein, from Temple Israel, Duluth, added one for an extra dose of spiritual depth.
Most of this program was repeated in New Brighton at the United Theological Seminary and Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park on Sunday.

Ernst Bloch was a giant of a Jewish composer in the middle of the twentieth century, so the program opened with the conclusion of his “Sacred Service.” Baritone Art Bumgardner sang the cantor’s role richly, and the mood was set for an evening of spiritual as well as musical profundity.

The next six selections offered four centuries of music for the synagogue. From the excitement of Psalm 150 in the classical style of L. Lewandoski, to the deep reflection of “Avinu Malkeinu” by Janowski in the early twentieth century, the variety of synagogue music was shared. Guest soprano Susan Jean Hellman joined the Chorale for one of Franz Schubert’s commissions for a synagogue in Vienna. She then heartfully sang the solo passage in the “Avinu.”

Hellman returned later to sing five songs, accompanied by Wold on the piano. Three of these were settings of Biblical passages, one was a contemporary love song, and one was a Yiddish gem about God’s tears in times of affliction. Hellman’s fully textured soprano seemed very appropriate. Sometimes she had the emotional intensity of a cantor, and her very gentle endings were evidence of her subtle technique. Her soulful rendition of Psalm Twenty Three by Bonia Shur was truly impressive.

One section of the evening contained four settings by contemporary composer Michael Horvit. These were each texts penned by children who died during the Holocaust, but whose words of innocence survived them. Following the Horvit, Rabbi Bernstein spoke briefly about remembrance, then offered a three-fold chanting of “Ani Maamin,” the soul-stirring poem about faithfulness etched on prison walls by a Holocaust victim. Silence prevailed for a few moments.

The fourth section of the program included Ted Schoen, clarinet, Tracey Gibbens, tuba, and Jennifer Simonson playing tambourine and hand drum. The music was social, rather than sacred, and the singing spirit was high in the air. A Boston musician, Joshua Jacobson, was responsible for arranging three of the selections. His own fascination for the music of Jews who moved into south-central Europe during the Renaissance is clear. The poems and tunes are from the heart, as these wandering Jews sang about their farms and their love lives.

The traditional wedding song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” was a rich center piece for this section. The evening full of roses offers a sampling of Jewish life, even though the world had offered a disproportionate number of thorns.

With a burst of energy characteristic of the Israeli dance known as the Hora, one final song exploded from the stage. “Hava Neytzey B’machol” it said—come join in the dancing. The audience sat and listened, but toes were tapping, and the evening of Jewish melody warmed everyone in the Weber Recital Hall on the UMD campus.

Arrowhead Chorale sounded warm, and their performance of this unique repertoire was enthusiastically received. “Mazel tov!” to Wold and the Chorale for bringing these selections deservedly into greater public awareness.