Choral Infusion: North American Jewish Choral Festival
Summer is camp season – not only for kids but also for adults. And if singing is your passion, there’s nothing like the North American Jewish Choral Festival, a project of the Zamir Choral Foundation (Matthew Lazar, founder and director). Last month, I attended full festival for the first time and felt the power of joining close to 300 others in song – an experience that was more moving as we sang Jewish texts. As a first-timer, I wanted to take advantage of everything the conference had to offer. That included:
- Community sings: Every morning, we learned three or four new pieces, each with a different conductor, and then recorded them – in just 15 minutes. Pretty remarkable! For someone like me, a member of a small choir that learns much of our repertoire by ear, this was good exercise in sight-reading and instant performance. The material was varied, from the peppy Sephardic tune “Yom Gila” (arranged by Simon J. Sargon), which celebrates Simchat Torah to the poignant Yiddish piece, “Dem Zeydns Nign,” (Grandfather’s Tune), which tells about the best songs that are hidden in grandfather’s wine.
- Instant choirs: Each day we had two rehearsals with our smaller, selected group to learn music more in depth toward an onstage performance on the last day of the festival. Working with conductor Nick Page, I had the opportunity to sing Kurt Weill’s bluesy “Kiddush,” commissioned by Cantor David Putterman of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue in 1943, as well as two other lively pieces.
- Workshops: With nearly 15 workshops available each afternoon on topics ranging from Yemenite song to tango, it was hard to know which to choose. At one session, I got some insight into the history of Yiddish song with famed musicologist Velvel Pasternak, a walking encyclopedia on the subject. At other workshops, I learned a new way to approach rhythm and how to pace myself during this marathon singing event.
- Evening concerts: As if the days’ activities were not enough – especially for this “camper” who is used to hitting the pillow by 10pm – each night offered group sings and concerts featuring renown performers like Cantors Alberto Mizrahi and Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson, and the Israeli crooner, Yehoram Gaon.
- Choirs: Evenings performances included accomplished groups such as the Zamir Chorale, the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, and the HaZamir Chamber Choir, high school students who use song as a way to connect with their heritage.
- Uncharted: At every meal, I sat down with singers from places across the United States, Canada, and the U.K. to learn about music and other customs in their communities. I met clergy and lay people who follow Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and other spiritual traditions who took the time to come and sing together as a whole. Many people attend year after year, and some bring their non-singing family members – including their mothers.
These thoughts merely scratch the surface of what the festival offers. What’s most meaningful to me is the chance to study and retain new music that once learned, can be called up at any time – a in the subway, on a walk crosstown, upon seeing natural wonders, or in worship. Next year, the North American Jewish Choral Festival celebrates a milestone –its 25th year – and I hope to see you there.