Chicago a cappella presents a richly varied program of Jewish music

Mon Sep 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Chicago a cappella performed a program of Jewish sacred music Sunday in Hyde Park. Photo: Jennifer Girard

There are abundant musical observances in the Chicago area with Rosh Hashanah taking place this week. Yet it would be difficult to beat the program of Jewish sacred music served up by Chicago a cappella Sunday afternoon at K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park.

The imposing Byzantine structure is a stunning piece of architecture with its stained glass windows, stone walls and dark majestic beauty. Yet the temple also proved a magnificent space for voices as richly demonstrated in the ensemble’s wide-ranging concert.

The program took its title from Chicago a cappella’s recently released CD, “Days of Awe and Rejoicing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music.” Gems they were indeed; the discerning program selected by artistic director Jonathan Miller spanned several centuries and was of a consistent high quality as was the vocalism, both individually and collectively. The ensemble proved first class across the board — technically immaculate, nuanced and expressive, and fully embodying the unique style and elements of this fascinating music.

A setting of the Shabbat text Shalom Aleichem led off the afternoon with bass Benjamin Rivera conveying the grave, elaborate solo line. Hal’luyah, ashrei ish yarei et-Adonai by the remarkably prolific 17th-century composer Salamone Rossi, provided a fine antiphonal effect with the singers split between the stage and center aisle, bringing out the madrigal-like style of this lovely setting.

Most of the nine singers had turns in the solo spotlight. The clear audience favorite was Trevor Mitchell in Joseph Kurland’s Hineni (arranged by Max Janowski). The young tenor tackled the wide range and stratospheric notes of this dramatic prayer with ease, his flexible voice putting across the cantorial style and febrile emotion with panache.

Of more recent vintage, Paul Schoenfield’s Four Motets (1995)  are affecting and uncommonly well crafted, fluently melding Renaissance elements with Schoenfield’s own style. The singers sensitively brought out the reflective essence and gentle solace of these subtly varied settings.

Shulamit Ran’s joyful Shirim L’Yom Tov (Four Festive Songs), was written at the time of her sons’ Bar Mitzvahs. The writing is so remarkably idiomatic in fusing traditional elements that it’s hard to believe that these are completely original settings, and all were given vibrant performances by the singers.

Stacy Garrop’s wryly subversive deconstruction of Hava Nagila turned the party favorite into a vocal tour de force with witty bass interjections, lightning acclerations and hand-clapping bravura. Shehecheyanu by artistic director Jonathan Miller proved equally delightful in its buoyant rhythmic energy and clever part writing.

Of a more somber cast is Ani Ma’amin, a prayer that Holocaust victims are said to have sung as they went to their deaths in Hitler’s concentration camps. The haunting setting was given a moving performance by the singers with notably sensitive solo work by mezzo Susan Schober.

Also heard was the lilting Uri Tzafon by Israeli composer, Dov Carmel. Joel Feig’s Uvashofar Gadol Yitaka is more overtly emotional than many of the works heard Sunday, yet shows great skill in writing for divided voices. Associated with Yom Kippur, Max Janowski’s Avinu Malkeynu received an affecting performance by the choir and solo soprano Kathryn Kamp, with a hushed glowing coda.

The Hal’luyah of Louis Lewandowski made an apt coda to the program with its uninhibited rejoicing and skillful counterpoint. The concluding Kiddush brought us full circle and Nurit Hirsh’s Oseh Shalom made a gentle, pastoral coda to a wonderful afternoon of music. There are three more performances next month and this is not an event to miss.

Chicago a cappella performs “Days of Awe and Rejoicing” 8 p.m. October 15 at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston; 4 p.m. October 16 at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park; and 8 p.m. October 22 at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. chicagoacappella.org; 312-322-1773.

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One Response to “Chicago a cappella presents a richly varied program of Jewish music”

  1. Posted Sep 26, 2011 at 4:26 pm by Bill Flowers

    The performance was simply incredible. I, for one, cannot wait for the chance to experience it again in October. Please join us.

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