Janowski concert pays tribute to Chicago composer’s legacy

Mon May 02, 2016 at 12:27 pm

By Tim Sawyier

A tribute to Chicago cantor and composer Max Janowski was presented Sunday night at KAM Isaiah Israel Temple in Hyde Park.
A tribute to Chicago cantor and composer Max Janowski was presented Sunday night at KAM Isaiah Israel Temple in Hyde Park.

Composer, conductor, and pedagogue Max Janowski was the music director at KAM Isaiah Israel Temple in Hyde Park from 1938 until his death in 1991.

Sunday night the temple hosted a concert to commemorate Janowski’s 25th yahrzeit (a Yiddish term for the anniversary of someone’s death). The musical retrospective of Janowski’s work, entitled “On the Wings of Impassioned Song,” was a fitting homage to a man who changed the landscape of Jewish liturgical music in the last century.

The most impressive aspect of the evening was the adroit singing from the lineup of cantors assembled for the occasion, headlined by David Berger (KAM’s current cantor) and Cory Winter (cantor emeritus of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield).  Berger possesses a powerful high register, which he deployed to great effect in the evening’s opening Shiru Ladonai, and later in an arrangement of Janowski’s original melody for V’sham’ru that had been commissioned from cantor Jonathan Comisar for this performance.

Winter channeled a shofar in his intoning of the opening of Sh’ma Koleinu, to which he brought commendable force, flexibility, and an abundance of colors. These sensitive vocal abilities were on display again in Ashira Ladonai toward the end of the evening, throughout which Winter frequently doubled as an astute and emphatic piano accompanist and conductor. 

Cantor Andrea Markowicz sang Janowski’s setting of poet Chayim Hacnman Bialik’s Shabbat Hamalkah with a delicate, focused tone, and gave an impassioned interpretation of the composer’s Y’rushalayim (on a text of Avigdor Hame’iri). Chicago a Capella founder Jonathan Miller and cantor Vicky Gliken were soloists in L’dor vador, both singing with resonant poise, and cantor Alberto Mizrahi was a sturdy soloist in the Chassidic Kaddish (a Janowski arrangement) and Birkat Hachodesh.

For the latter Mizrahi was joined by the Hyde Park chapter of the Chicago Children’s Choir, which also sang in Tanu Rabanan, and Shim’u M’lachim. The local CCC was polished and clearly well prepared by conductors Mollie Stone and Stephanie Gregoire, and cantors Michael Davis and Randall Schloss were nimble soloists in the last two works, respectively. The blithe, welcoming voices of cantors Ida Rae Cahana and Lauren Phillips were well suited to their solo roles in Adonai Ro’i (Cahana) and Kineret-Galilee and Emek (Phillips).

Throughout the performance the KAM Isaiah Israel Professional Choir provided ample support for the cantorial soloists, singing with fine balance and a burnished ensemble sonority. Pianist Tom Weisflog alternated with Winter providing sensitive accompaniment, none of which, however, needed to miked as prominently as it was. 

Toward the end of the long evening (the program ran over two hours sans intermission), Winter had Yiboneh Hamikdash open with a recording of Janowski improvising an introduction. Judging from this fragment, Janowski was a consummate pianist, his virtuosic improvisation redolent with jazz combined with figuration reminiscent of the Second Viennese School. While this opened an interesting window into Janowski’s art, it also pointed to its chief drawback.

According to baritone Kurt Hansen, who provided some memorial words for Janowski early in the evening, the composer thought “Jewish music should sound Jewish,” rather than like standard liturgical music only sung in Hebrew. Janowski’s settings abound with the evocatively melismatic vocal writing associated with Jewish music.

Yet harmonically and melodically many of the works performed Sunday sounded derivative of familiar European composers and a distinctive individual voice was less discernible. The writing for children’s chorus was straight out of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, much of the choral writing sounded like less memorable passages of Carmina Burana, and throughout one could pick out whiffs of Prokofiev, Bloch, Sibelius, and Puccini, yet could not grasp an identifiable Janowski. That said, the pastiche of influences he injected into Jewish liturgy clearly invigorated it, and Janowski’s contributions to Chicago and the greater musical world remain an admirable historical legacy.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Janowski concert pays tribute to Chicago composer’s legacy”

  1. Posted May 04, 2016 at 10:05 pm by Charlene Ackerman

    I attended this concert as a member of far north Congregation BJBE, Cantor Winter was and remains adored by members who recall his tenure with us. KUDOS to young Cantor Berger for putting this program together! He has breathed new vitality and magical music into a Congregation that is historically significant. I look forward to more of his musical creativity in future programs! Mazel Tov, Cantor Berger.

  2. Posted Mar 06, 2017 at 10:59 am by David Drazin

    It was probably 1964 when Max Janowski visited our home in Lyndhurst (a suburb of Cleveland), Ohio. My mother Edith was a fine pianist and choir director. Mr. Janowski played a concert on our piano that afternoon. I’ve since inherited copies of the music composed by Mr. Janowski, and would like to find a place that would accept the music as a donation. Thank you for your time. Yours Sincerely, David Drazin

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