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Jewish Music in Chicago:  What I Learned Over the Weekend

Jan 31, 2012

Jonathan Miller, Chicago a cappella artistic director

Recently, I was honored to be guest conductor of a large combined chorus and soloists for the centenary birthday celebration of Chicago's foremost composer of Jewish music, Max Janowski (January 29, 1912-April 8, 1991), held at the historic KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park where Janowski served as music director for 53 years. While there, he created a new musical language for Jewish liturgical music for Reform and Conservative congregations in the Midwest and had a profound influence on hundreds of musicians and dozens of congregations. KAMII also will be one of the four venues for Chicago a cappella's own Janowski-themed concerts this autumn.

The weekend began on Friday evening, 1/27/12, with a Shabbat Eve service led by Cantor Mirian Eskenasy and Rabbi Batsheva Appel.  The music was an all-Janowski compilation of music from across his career. The selection of music was a revelation for me.  By way of a little background:  I am a bit of a Janowski expert, partly because for 14 years I have been curator of the published Janowski works. I have come to know quite well the 150 pieces that were published by Friends of Jewish Music.  However, Cantor Eskenasy cast a net far and wide, including some wonderful research into the congregational archives at KAMII, and she found an "Avodath Hakodesh" (Sacred Service) that was composed early in Janowski's career, as well as the cantata "Bayom Hahu" which I had seen on paper but had never heard or sung.  Probably a half-dozen pieces came from these two major collections.  Just when you think you know a composer's work....

The soloists for the evening included Kurt Hansen, now professor of voice at Northwestern University's School of Music, who was one of the singers whom I most idolized as a young boy--Kurt could do no wrong, never missed a note, always spun out a magnificent, glowing, golden line of melody.  He sings Max's music so beautifully, with passion and conviction and fire and great technique.  His big solo was in the anthem "Mi Eyl Kamocha" ("Who is like unto Thee, O God?"), and it was magnificent.  Other soloists included Cantors Joanna Alexander and Ben Rosner, young professionals who also grew up at KAM, as well as Student Cantors Lauren Phillips and Faryn Kates from the School of Sacred Music in New York.  Yours truly contributed the solo in Janowski's "R'tsey Vimnuchateynu," an early work for Shabbat.  People came from far and wide, and it was wonderful to have about 150 people in all, including members of Rodfei Zedek down the street, where I serve as high-holiday cantor. There were also many people who had grown up at KAM and whose lives were similarly enriched by knowing Max Janowski and his music.  It is music that touches the soul deeply.  The ever-capable Tom Weisflog played the piano, and KAMII's capable choir of volunteers and professionals sang beautifully.

On Saturday afternoon, there was a dress rehearsal for the big Sunday afternoon concert. 

Sunday morning, there was a symposium in the morning.  It was held in the small Stone Chapel, as the Friday night service had been. The symposium consisted of three lectures:  one by Prof. Philip Bohlman from the University of Chicago, one by Prof. Judah Cohen of Indiana University, and one by yours truly.  Phil Bohlman is, in my opinion, a rock start of musical scholarship; fluent in a gazillion languages and deeply respectful of different cultures, he told us stories and showed us documents and played us songs from the 19th-century Berlin that shaped the young Max Janowski's cultural outlook.  I was fascinated to see magazines and newspapers for cantors, that included advertisements for shoes as well as books (I stand for three hours straight when I serve as cantor on Yom Kippur, and I know how important good shoes are!).  Phil also talked about the transformation of Jewish identity at the time, from a mindset that was centered in prayer and ritual -- more of an insular, almost provincial mindset -- to a cosmopolitan, "aesthetic" mindset where Judaism was part of a sophisticated, urban, international community where ideas and influences were exchanged.

Judah Cohen dove deeply into the KAMII congregational archives and told us the fascinating story of Max Janowski's hire at KAMII.  The blockbuster for me and for Cantor Eskenasy was the relevation in the archives of the role that KAM's Choir Committee played in Janowski's his early activities.  The kicker was the fact that the Choir Committee directed Max Janowski to start composing music that captured and perpetuated elements of traditional cantorial nussach, partly to help foster a greater sense of Jewishness in the music and also to appeal to younger congregants who needed, it was felt, things to help them identify as Jewish in a time of great assimilationist pressures. 

 

KAM Isaiah Israel Chicago a cappella JanowskiThe big Sunday concert was held in the main sanctuary, shown at left. This is the place where, as a boy, I was awestruck by the sound of Max Janowski's choir and his organ playing and the cantor and soloists for the High Holidays.  On January 29, the 100th anniversary (to the day!) of Max's birth, an expanded roster of soloists combined with roughly 90 voices from four different choirs, singing in various combinations on different songs.  They were the KAMII choir;  Kol Zimrah, the Jewish Community Singers of Metro Chicago, a wonderful volunteer group of about 60 directed by Richard Boldrey;  "Voices of Harmony," the Milwaukee Community Jewish Chorale, directed by Enid Bootzin Berkowitz;  and St. Pauls United Church of Christ Chancel Choir, directed by Kurt Hansen. All the cantors from Friday night were there, augmented by Cantor Cory Winter, one of the three direct Janowski protegés, who came in from California and performed magnificently as singer and pianist (and conducted the amazing "Ashira Ladonai" from the piano);  Cantors Deborah Bard and Menachem Kohl, both former cantors from KAMII; and Cantor Arik Luck from Beth Emet in Evanston.

Ohmygosh, was the singing amazing!  I had the best seat in the house from the conductor's podium. One of the special highlights was the world premiere of a new work commissioned by KAMII from Bob Applebaum just for this occasion, a glorious setting of "Tov L'hodot" ("It is good to give praise to the Lord");  Cantor Eskenasy took the solo, and the combined choral forces for that piece were more than 60.  This was followed by other pieces, and the first half ended with a beautiful performance of Sim Shalom, with all possible singers up on the bimah (podium).  I was so moved by all of the singers up there, and moved further still by the audience's singing along on the refrain, as well as the truly beautiful and heartfelt solo that Cory Winter provided.  Here is a man for whom Max Janowski's music and spirit truly courses through his veins. 

This concert also taught me a few pieces of Max's music that I hadn't known before.  "Kol Dodi" is a sweet text from the Song of Songs, and Max set it for a simple duet of voices.  In this case, Cantors Rosner, Bard and Alexander teamed up with our visiting oboist to create a lovely chamber-music performance with an intimate feel. The other new discovery for me was "Kineret," a song by Mark Lavry (an Israeli composer of Latvian birth), a beautiful setting with a lovely piano part, performed with a gorgeous soprano solo by Lauren Phillips. 

Part of what I am enjoying about this program in hindsight is the connection to Chicago a cappella's own upcoming concerts in honor of Max Janowski, to be held this fall. As part of the project, I am arranging eight of Janowski's works for a cappella choir, including several that were on this concert in their original accompanied form; of these, "Sh'ma Koleynu" and "Sim Shalom" are probably the most famous. These new settings will be premiered at CAC's concerts, and it will be a particular honor to get to perform these at KAMII.

If you have personal memories of Max Janowski, please contact me to let me know of your experience. These memories are precious and help to hold on to the legacy of this remarkable musician and big-hearted man.

Five Questions with Paul Carey

Jan 26, 2012

Paul CareyThe Oak Park-based composer’s arrangement of the spiritual “Blin’ Man” will be at our upcoming concert, Wade in the Water

1. What are you listening to on your iPod these days?

Both of the new Grammy-nominated discs by the choir Seraphic Fire from Miami. One is a Christmas CD and the other is the Brahms Requiem in its more intimate piano 4 hands version. I am supposed to review them soon on my choral music blog: www.paulcarey440.blogspot.com.

Otherwise I unwind listening to quality Latin jazz.

2.  What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done — musically or otherwise?

Become a father!  Otherwise, climbing a mountain in upstate New York. When I got to the top and my lungs were dying, I met a 75 year old lady basking in the sun—made me feel really out of shape to see her there in apparent ease. But then I found out she had climbed all of the "50 high peaks" at least twice in her life.

3. If I weren't a musician I would be…

a baker (or a candlestick maker, or string bass jazzer).

4. If I could change one thing about classical music…

I would knock down "the fourth wall" as often as possible. Without dumbing down the product, I’d strive to make classical concerts less stuffy, more inclusive, and maybe add door prizes, chainsaw jugglers, and a dancing platypus to the show.

5. A musician or composer people might not know about but should is…

Tarik O'Regan, a great composer currently in NYC (originally from UK). Also the violist/madman Yuri Bashmet.

Thanks for asking, Chicago a cappella!

Gala Program Book Ads

Jan 23, 2012

You can reach Chicago a cappella's active and highly educated audience with a message in this year's Gala benefit program book.  The event, ComeTogether, is a benefit bash featuring the music of Lennon & McCartney at the antique wonderland known as Salvage One on May 17, 2012.  Advertise your business, or congratulate our honorees: John Vorrasi (of the William Ferris Chorale), the Arts and Business Council of Chicago, and Joan Gunzberg.

More information about our program ads is available here - or call us (773) 281-7820.

Chicago a cappella’s Inaugural Youth Choral Festival

Jan 17, 2012

This exciting choral festival brings small ensembles from Chicago-area high schools together with Chicago a cappella's professional singers and directors for a day of workshops, singing and performing at no cost to participating schools and students.  This non-competitive festival will culminate in a free concert for the public featuring all of the groups, including Chicago a cappella, singing alone and as a large festival choir.  The 2012 Chicago a cappella Youth Choral Festival will take place on March 10 at the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago.  This year's participating ensembles are Sounds of Sweetness from Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, Bazao from Evanston Township High School and Bel Canto from University of Chicago Laboratory High School.  Please join us for the free public Youth Choral Festival Concert at 5 pm to watch and support these talented young singers!

Youth Choral Festival Concert
Saturday, March 10, 2012
5:00 PM
Athenaeum Theater
2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL

Free tickets available at the door

“Holidays a cappella” on WFMT 98.7 FM

Dec 11, 2011

98.7 WFMTChicago a cappella's recent Holidays a cappella concert will be heard on a special radio broadcast on Christmas Day on WMFT Radio (98.7 FM) in Chicago.  The 8:00 pm (CST) broadcast will also be available via WFMT's live audio stream, so please tell your friends and relatives around the country to tune in. 

High School Internship Program 2012

Nov 1, 2011

Calling all high school singers!  Ever dream of singing on stage with Chicago a cappella?  Here's your chance!

Announcing the 2012 Chicago a cappella High School Internship Program!   We are looking for a talented and dedicated group of high school singers to serve as High School Interns from January-May of 2012.  Our High School Interns will receive one-on-one mentorship from CAC singers and directors, observe parts of CAC rehearsals, sing as a small intern ensemble, perform on stage with CAC and learn about arts administration from our staff.  Auditions for the Intern Program will be on December 10th from 1-3pm at the Athenaeum Theater, and interested applicants must contact Susan Schober, Education Outreach Coordinator, before December 2nd to reserve a spot. Spots are filling quickly, so reserve your spot ASAP!

Bonus: All intern applicants will receive a free ticket to a Chicago a cappella concert!  For more information on the program or to download the Intern Information and Application kit, visit our Education Outreach page.

Radio Appearances

Sep 26, 2011

Chicago a cappella has been on the radio lately!   First, 98.7 WFMT broadcast our performance from the Spertus Institute celebrating the release of our new CD of Jewish music, Days of Awe and Rejocing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music.  That program aired Wednesday, Sept. 28.  Then Chicago a cappella made a live "Impromptu" appearance on Monday, October 3, at 1:00 pm (CDT).  The ensemble sang excerpts from Days of Awe and Rejoicing, in celebration of the Jewish High Holidays and as a preview of the remaining concert performances. 

And the group was also the guest of WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, for their program "Eight Forty-Eight" on September 27.    If you missed that show, you can still hear it online.

New season brochure: tell us what you think

Aug 16, 2011

We hope you have received our 2011-12 season brochure in the mail.  We’d love to hear your feedback about it!  Tell us what you think by posting a comment below about the new brochure (or email us or call 773-281-7820 to request a copy).

Plus, you can help us maintain our records (and save a tree!) by letting us know about any duplicates or misspellings.  Just email or call 773-281-7820. Thanks in advance for your help!

CD Release Event

Jun 20, 2011

We are thrilled to announce the official release of our new CD, Days of Awe and Rejoicing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music, on September 18.  You are invited to a special event at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, where artistic director Jonathan Miller will discuss the music and the ensemble will perform selected songs as a preview.  Following the discussion-performance, join the entire ensemble for a reception and CD signing.  A copy of the CD is included in the admission to the reception event.  Reservations ($50) available only through the Spertus Institute.  Seating is limited, so make your reservation today!  Call 312.322.1773 or make your reservation online.   


Then make plans to hear the entire program at our season-opening concert performances of Days of Awe and Rejoicing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music (Sept. 25-Oct. 22).

A Seal of Approval for Good A Cappella Tuning?

May 24, 2011

We received an interesting invitation (a sales pitch, really) the other day from an organization called www.realsing.org.  Their stated mission is to certify recordings (with gold stickers!) that have been vetted as having had "No Artificial Tuning" on the main vocals.  The RealSing Collective asserts as follows:  "Real singers, those who don't rely on vocal pitch correction and Auto-tune technology deserve advocates and a means to be identified, elevated and separated from the rest of the imposters. RealSing Collective informs the listening public about the creative and authentic counterpoint to vocal pitch correction, a misleading and now common practice. This should be music to everyone's ears."

My question to you is this:  in the classical-music world, would such a certification make any sense?  While on the face of it, RealSing has limited relevance to the way Chicago a cappella sings, we thought you might have something to say on the topic.  What are your feelings about the advantages and disadvantages auto-tuned vocals, or otherwise "artificially" processed singing on recordings? Let us know what you think, and we'll moderate your replies here. Let us hear from you!

Tunefully yours,

Jonathan Miller

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