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.


On April 13, 2012,
Irwin Keller said:

Ah, I was recently writing about my memories of Max’s music. See the link below.

On April 13, 2012,
Irwin Keller said:

Hmm. That didn’t work, did it? Here’s the link:

On September 3, 2012,
Ron Cytron said:

I was dating a student at the U of I and went to visit her family with her in Chicago.  I had been a fan of Max’s music for years, and when I found out they were at KAM, I asked if we could go that Fri night.  The service was in the chapel, but I approached Max after the service, told him of my love of his music, and he took me into the sanctuary and played an improvisation on the organ (of Adon Olam if memory serves).

I sincerely hope some recordings beyond the old vinyl are released of his compositions.  He was an amazing composer and I would love to see the influence of his music increase.

On September 3, 2012,
Ron Cytron said:

Another funny story:  Max came to Champaign for a concert / service at Sinai Temple.  I had tried to urge the congregation to rent a nice piano, but they went with what they had.  Midway through the service, Max stopped and began a story of the piano that went with the Jews as we fled Egypt in search of Canaan—the long trek that piano took with the Jews for 40 years across the desert.

He ended the story with “Who would have guessed that piano would end up here?”

On October 13, 2012,
Monty Barnard said:

I had the pleasure of being Max’s baritone soloist at KAM from 1961 to 1969.  Other members of the solo quartet during those years were Bea Horwitz, alto, Nanette Uney, soprano, and Ken Hendrickson, tenor.  Max’s wonderful wife, Gretel, also sang in the choir on Shabbat, during Holy Days, and for our many concerts.  My association with Max was a profoundly rich experience that proved to be life changing for me.  I still sing his music during High Holy Days at Mt. Zion synagogue in Sioux Falls South Dakota.  Thanks to Max and KAM, love and deep respect for Judaism and its marvelous traditions run deep in my Gentile veins.

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