The week of July 17, second- and third-year students in the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College’s Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual and Educational Leadership (COSEL) program attended the 2017 North American Jewish Choral Festival, sponsored by the New York-based Zamir Choral Foundation, as part of their summer session in the School’s Prayer Leader Summer Institute.
Oy, I’ve been transported to a scene from Dirty Dancing. An aging, well, aged resort in the Catskills. Jews everywhere and hey, some of them even my age. If you’ve ever been to Hava Nashira up in Ocomowoc Wisconsin, this seems much like Hava for…the mature! The registration line is out the door. We are finally settled in. Schedules checked. Rehearsals begin. Some of us head off in one direction for the Zamir Chorale of Boston rehearsal, and many of the rest of us checked out the vendors in the lobby for a Jewish music-themed tchotchke or two. I bought some—I can’t resist. The big event for Sunday? The Boston Zamir concert. They were spectacular as expected, but the real surprise was HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Choir. This group includes select members from various young HaZamir groups around the country and Israel. These kids had incredible stage presence and even better voice control. We looked around at each other as they sang, thinking whew, I never sang like that when I was that age! Monday marked the beginning of our instant ensembles, classes, community sing, and another concert or two.
Music and more music. And food. WAAAY too much food. Buffet means you eat as much as is humanly possible…or impossible. The days consist of five main activities.
Eating, of course, is one.
The next is what is called “instant ensemble.” During registration, you indicate your level of music ability. How well can you sight-sing? CAN you sight-sing? (For those who don’t know, sight-singing is being able to pick up a piece of music and coming pretty close to accurate singing of those notes, give or take.) How complex is the music you can handle? Given these answers and more, we are all divided into one of 5 possible ensembles. All of us are in the top-level ensemble conducted by Matthew Lazar, the founder and director of the festival and head of New York Zamir. We meet twice a day for 1-1/2 hours each. Today we receive a book of music ranging from Rossi to Lewandowski to a more contemporary piece by one of the ensemble members that rings strangely of Bernstein. This is really difficult music. Maayan, Jen, and Melanie are all sopranos, Dara chooses to also sing soprano, and I am one of three, just three, alto 2s. That means in this genre of music I’m singing in the basement! My happy place. More on the ensembles later.
The third activity is a community sing which takes place out in an enormous tent. Our own Josh Jacobson leads part of the sing, and it is lovely to be outside in the morning and hear all the voices.
Our big educational experience is in our workshops, which range on a large variety of musical subjects such as choosing music for a volunteer choir, arranging, various musical history courses, etc.
The last activity: concerts which are community choral groups, Zamir and HaZamir groups from around the country, and some absolutely unbelievable synagogue choir and cantors whose music is so technically perfect it gives me chills.
Day 3 continues much like Day 2. Way too much food, workshops (Cantor Brian Mayer led a workshop on usual and unusual music for special events: brit milah, weddings, and funerals which we all attended), more choirs to hear, more ensemble rehearsals, and did I say more food? I mean it’s Jews here…what do you expect?
The evening choral performance was spectacular with arrangements by the New York Zamir and, get this, the Maccabeats. Even though they are an a cappella group and not a choral group, they were just too much fun to miss. These guys have a great sense of humor and fabulous harmonies. We also enjoyed a little free time in the afternoon so we enjoyed this gorgeous scenery and investigated the third largest garden gnome in the world, visited a a petting zoo where a goat tried to eat Maayan’s dress, and had lunch in little college town of New Paltz before we got back to the grind.
Today was more food, more workshops, and more ensemble rehearsals. I attended a workshop about choral music for small choirs. Once we are ordained, many of us will be working with either small professional or volunteer choirs, which is a whole different game — choosing pieces for those groups than choosing just for one person. There is a lot of thought and prep needed behind performing each piece. In addition to the workshop I attended, other workshops today included: Jewish music history, Chassidic song, ritual music, and new sounds out of Israel. Each workshop is taught by top composers, conductors, and other musicians. Not your average situation for sure.
Like the rest of the week, today also included “community sings” where we all get together and yep, the sound does come right out. We’ve had them outside in a tent, in the hotel lobby…imagine Lewandowski’s Hallelujah at top volume with hundreds of voices. Most people attending the Festival knew the piece so it came out in all of its glorious SATB splendor. Quite something to hear, really.
But the high point of the day was the cocktail reception with one of the Festival two honorees being our own SJM Senior Advisor Josh Jacobson. Evening once again brought in concerts from various Zamir groups from around the country and individual choirs. A special highlight was a Yiddish group who brought smiles performing Broadway clips with a Yiddish flavor.
The last morning included one big event: the performances of all the instant ensembles. We all had one more rehearsal with our group and filed into the concert hall to do sound checks. I discovered a little late, as many did, that we needed to wear white shirts and black pants or skirts so there was a lot of clothing trade that went on prior to performance. I was rescued by our own Marcia Spellman who brought spare clothing and tossed a black skirt in my direction after breakfast! The performances were spectacular…really all of them. The change in the beginners group from Day 1 to this performance was astounding. You would never guess this hadn’t been an ensemble working together for some time. In my very unbiased opinion, the COSEL group, in the top level ensemble conducted by Matthew Lazar, was naturally the best. We pulled off incredibly difficult music and, from what I could heard, all our hard work at rehearsals was worth it! I learned a great deal about ensemble technique from the experience.
We hardly had a chance to breathe after the performance. A plane to catch, places to go, friends to visit. Everyone scattering in various directions with that mixed, disoriented feeling of “boy that lasted forever” and “where did the time go” all in one. It was an incredible experience all around.
Monica Braverman is a third-year student in the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College’s Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual and Educational Leadership (COSEL) program.