Celebrate the life and music of Max Janowski

Jul 12, 2012

This fall Chicago cappella will present a concert in celebration of Max Janowski’s centenary year, Genius in the Synagogue.  Janowski had a major influence here in Chicago, and his works continue to resonate in Jewish musical life all over the world.  He is remembered for his great achievements and holds a dear place in many hearts.  We invite you to share your personal memories, stories, thoughts and feelings about Max Janowski and his music. Your contributions will commemorate this important occasion and we will share some of your thoughts with our concert audiences.


On July 17, 2012,
Susan Schober said:

Some of my strongest early childhood memories are of attending high holy days services at K.A.M Isaiah Israel with my family.  We always sat in the balcony of the synagogue’s spectacular main sanctuary so we could be as close as possible to the music.  Many kids would gather with their friends and goof off in the balcony, but I would always sit quietly, transfixed by the truly awesome sounds flowing from the choir loft high above the sanctuary stage.  I remember the harmonies, the solos, so clearly… all led by our congregation’s cantor, Max.  I had no idea that I was listening to the work of a music genius, or how lucky I was to later have the opportunity to work with Max, one-on-one as I prepared for my bat mitzvah, but I do know he and his music had a profound effect on me.  Lush, dense harmonies and soaring melodies, of any kind, always seem to bring back memories of those hot, crowded evenings in the sanctuary balcony as my ears and heart were filled to the brim with pure joy.

On July 17, 2012,
Jonathan Miller said:

Today I am writing from the North American Jewish Choral Festival in upstate New York (a few miles from my dad’s boyhood home of Ellenville), which this year is devoting a heavy portion of the program to Max Janowski’s 100th birthday.  Each of the “Instant Ensembles” at the Festival is doing at least one Janowski work.  I conducted Max’s “Yiboneh Hamikdosh” at the Community Sing this morning—300 people all singing great Jewish choral music under a tent—who cares that it’s hot? 

Part of my mission in being here is to draw attention to Chicago a cappella’s work in Jewish music (I managed to sell a few of the “Days of Awe” CDs), and also to teach people how to sing Janowski’s music if they are in a situation where, for example, they can’t use s keyboard or have a small choir.  I led a workshop about just how to do this.  The workshop was preceded by a panel discussion about Max’s life and his outsized personality, including Max’s famous apprentice Cory Winter.  Cory made us all laugh with some great stories, and he played a live recording of Max accomopanying Bea Horwitz in a fabulous performance of Lazar Weiner’s “Nign” (wordless melody, or “niggun”). What fun.

On July 17, 2012,
Jonathan Miller said:

I had a great moment today at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, about which I think Max would be proud.  After I conducted his “Yiboneh Hamikdosh” this morning and got the crowd all excited, the Festival organizers pulled me aside and invited me to sing the solo to “Avinu Malkeynu” at the end of one of this afternoon’s sessions.  I gulped a little and thanked them for the vote of confidence—and told them I would vocalize in my hotel room after lunch and let them know.  (I am a bass-baritone with a big range, but the “big note” is a high A-flat!)  I practiced it a few times—man, is that high for me!—and decided to go for it.  Mati Lazar, the head of the Festival, was getting ready to conduct the piece. When I told him I was good to go, said to me, “Good—you bought the property, you don’t need to build a house on it.”  And I did well on the solo…. always nice to have a good microphone.  This was the first time I have done that solo at pitch instead of transposing it down.  Nice to know the Ab is there.  Max always challenged his soloists to be their best, and I felt that I rose to the occasion to do his memory a good turn.

On July 18, 2012,
mtemkin said:

I had an opportunity to sing with Max Janowski’s Junior Choir at Rodfei Sholom on Chicago’s South Side in 1964.  It was always a thrill for me to get the solo for “May the Words of My Mouth” on Shabbat morning. Listening to Tzi Ben Shalom sing “Sim Shalom” with the adult choir on Friday night was moving beyond words. I was privileged to know Max and his wife Greta/Gerta. Tuesday night choir practice was a treat, indeed.

On July 18, 2012,
Bob Applebaum said:

I have a vivid recollection of the moment I became interested in writing choral music and it connects distinctly with Max’s music.

It was in the fall of 1976.  My wife, Rosalie, and I were attending the opening service of Rosh Hashanah at BJBE (B’nei Joshua Beth Elohim in Glenview, IL).  The opening song was Max’s setting of Psalm 121, Esa Einai.  The organ fired up, and the cantor (Cory Winter) began singing.  About ½ minute into the setting, the choir entered singing a breathtaking succession of descending chords: just eight amazing measures of music!

It was an epiphany for me:  Jewish music with an individualistic, fresh quality.  I turned to my wife, and said, “That is music I would love to have written.”

I certainly do not share Max’s soaring musical vocabulary.  However, the very personal and fresh style he infused into his settings of the liturgy suggested that this was something that I, too, might be able to do.  And it was those descending chords that opened that door for me.

In subsequent years, I joined the volunteer choir at BJBE.  Max would drive up to Glenview from Hyde Park every few weeks to rehearse the ensemble.  He would prepare the group to sing 3 or 4 of his pieces as a set of anthems after the sermon.  Max would be at the piano accompanying and conducting the choir.  Even more amazing to me than his written music were the rhapsodic improvisations that he would fashion as interludes between these pieces.  Those improvisations were true genius.

Of course, no one is perfect.  In truth, Max did not fare as well as a conductor/teacher of amateurs.  He seemed to care little about the ensemble developing a unified vowel sound and dynamics seemed to range between f and fff.  Yet there were tidbits of insightful wisdom.  Two of the more memorable ones:  if you sing the correct rhythm there is a strong probability that you will sing the correct note, and if the music is well-written you can probably find your note as a continuation of the melodic line in another voice.

Finally I will add that as a composer I find myself imitating one particular “gesture” that Max would use, and that is having the accompaniment delay for a beat or two when the lead vocal line enters with a held note.

On July 18, 2012,
Linda Stone said:

I was a child in Deerfield when Max drove out to teach the fledgling choir at Beth Or. Even then, I could sense that he was a true genius. Although he would bang on the piano and yell at the people, the sounds that they produced sounded like angels from heaven. My mother sang the solo in Avineu Malkeynu and Kol Nidre.To this day, when I hear any of Max’s music, I immediately remember my youth, my heritage, and his presence in my life. I grew up, joined BJBE as a young married couple, then Etz Chaim in Lombard. We started a temple in the western suburbs. Currently we enjoy Max’s music at Temple Sinai in Chicago. All through the years, Max’s spirit has been there for me; the one constant in a world full of change.

On July 19, 2012,
Trevor Mitchell said:

At the age of 15, one of my beloved teachers, the late Venoris Cates, took me and 2 other students to a rehearsal one evening in Hyde Park.  We were given strict instruction not to sing, but rather to watch, listen and learn.  During the rehearsal we were given scores to ‘Sim Shalom’ to follow along.  After a while I could not stand just doing nothing so I started to sing and got a dirty look from Mrs. Cates when Max, whom I had never met or even heard of, said ‘let him sing, it’s ok’.  During the break he asked me if I’d like to sing the solo and I said yes!  He taught it to me and when we all reassembled, I sang it and at the end he said ‘put in a high note’, which I also did totally not knowing the significance of a high D at the time.  Through all the years of Synagogue singing ‘Sim Shalom’ was not done and I did not sing it again until Chicago a cappella programmed it several seasons ago!

On July 22, 2012,
Vreni Naess said:

I met Max Janowski while working at the Chicago Children’s Choir. Before I met him, I had become an admirer and lover of his beautiful music some of which was regularly performed by the members of our choir. At one time, he agreed to give a “composition workshop” at the Children’s Choir. Director Christopher Moore carefully chose ten aspiring composers from a much larger pool of would-be candidates. There were more boys than girls, more blacks than whites. They all assembled around Max sitting at the piano and listened with full attention as he started out with a story about the first composition he had ever written. From there he went into sounds and structures but also into feelings expressed by the music, illustrating each point at the piano. Towards the end he let the children sing or play their own melodies. They loved it and they loved him - they didn’t want him to leave, several of them followed him down the stairs and out the building. He loved it, too - and came back for a second session a few months later.

On July 29, 2012,
Daniel Friedman said:

As the assistant rabbi (to Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein) at KAM 1962-65, it was my great privilege to listen to Max and his own choir every Friday evening.  What a thrill!  Even more wonderful:  our Confirmation Class, which I taught on Saturday mornings, adjourned each week to the chapel for our Shabbat morning service, wherein a regular feature was Max’s informal address to the class, explaining how he came to compose the piece of his that he chose to discuss that week.  He would demonstrate what made it “Jewish,” drawing upon classical masters to contrast well-known Beethoven or Bach melodies with “Jewish” modalities. I can not say that the teenagers were enthralled with Max’s lessons, but I remember every word!

When I left KAM and became the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Max graciously agreed to create and build our choir.  He and Gretel would travel to our weekly Sunday evening rehearsals, and within a few months, we were ready for our High Holiday debut, consisting, of course, of Max’s music entirely.  Within two years, we were able to present a public “Festival of Jewish Music” presided over by Max, who revealed to a mesmerized audience the nature and uniqueness of Jewish music.

Max was a dear friend and mensch.  When our congregation moved steadily away from the Reform prayerbook and toward Humanistic Judaism, he enthusiastically and brilliantly helped us revise theistic texts so that we could continue to use his music in our humanistic services.  He even changed a few words in his “Avinu Malkaynu” and, voila, a humanistic masterpiece.

Zecher zaddik liv’racha.

On August 6, 2012,
Judy Gilbert said:

It seems that Max has been in my life forever.  As a young child, he became the music direcctor of our synagogye, Rodfei Sholom,  on the south side of Chicago.
My father, Norman Shapiro, though not a professional, was acting cantor at the time. Max became his mentor as well as his dear friend.
Max and Gretel spent many evenings socializing at our house.  My parents traveled and sang with him on his touring lecture/performances.
Eventually I joined the choir, as did my future husband. And we became a one-family Max Janowski Choir!
Max played piano at my wedding and up until I was in my thirties I did not realize there was other choral music to be sung other than Max’s music.
After joining a Chicago city-wide choral group , Kol Zimrah, about 15 years ago,
I just smiled when the director introduced the music of the great Max Janowski. Many had not heard of him.  I realized how lucky I was to have had him in my life.  This past year was the 100th birthday of Max. I have been uplifted by singing all of his music again and talking with his old friends, Johathan Miller and Cory Winter about all of our experiences we had with Max. When we sing his music now, I picture Max and my father, looking down from on high and
“qvelling” .

On October 1, 2012,
Thom Gall said:

My first professional singing gig was in the High Holy Days Choir @ Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio. I was 17 and a senior in high school. Our choir director featured many of Janowski’s greatest hits and I fell in love with his dramatic arrangements. In the spring of 1973, the congregation commissioned Max to pen a piece to commemorate the retirement of our beloved rabbi, Jerome Folkman. Max came to Columbus and conducted its premiere - MI EYL KAMOCHA - another great addition to the Janowski songbook.  I have been part of the music program at TI since those early days, taking over as choir director in 2007. My reverence for Max’s music is still strong.

On December 13, 2012,
Spencer Harris Morfit said:

When I first transferred to a new school in South Shore, Chicago, the first person to reach out in friendship was Faryl Targ.  She remained my very best friend through our senior year in high school.

I was rasied an Episcopalian. Faryl is Jewish.  Her family attended Isaiah-Israel.  This was when Max Janowski was the music director and the rabbi Nathan Perlmutter.  The first time I attended,  I was blown away by a soulful exoticim.  Those minor chords!  That unfamiliar but lovely architecture.  A prayerbook printed backwards.

A familiar passgae from the Old testament would come up.  I would whisper to Faryl, “Hey! We have that!.”  She would whisper back, “We had it first!”

My life has been so enriched by the hopsitable way Faryl, her family and Rabbi Perlmutter shared the Jewish faith and tradition. 

I am now a Unitarian. Last Sunday, I sang a portion of Janowski’s Sim Shalom in our Channukah services.  I thought of those lovely experiences.  I have now carried Janowski’s music to at least three other churches. 

We have reason to be so grateful for this intimate and soulful music that gives voice and song to the deepest aspirations of the whole human race.

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