Interview: Matt Greenberg on "Hanukkah a cappella" - Chicago a cappella

Ahead of our Hanukkah a cappella program, we asked Executive Director Matt Greenberg to shed some light on the program’s origins and special meaning to Chicago a cappella.

How did the idea come about to dedicate a full concert to Hanukkah music?  

The idea for a CD project with Cedille Records came first. After the recording was delayed (twice!), we realized we had the opportunity to actually perform the whole thing in front of audiences as a program before going into the recording studio.

This music has been a part of our holiday concerts for so many years, but we thought it would be great to gather it all together and do a full-on celebration just for Hanukkah. There is so much great music, and we’ve only done a few songs each year, so it’s fun to put it together as a complete package.


It is a bit unusual to find concerts dedicated to this music, why is that?

It’s a bit of a luxury to devote a whole concert to Hanukkah music, since Christmas is around the same time and that’s such a huge holiday, and especially for choirs. So most choral groups are always really busy with Christmas music and only have space for maybe one or two songs to acknowledge Hanukkah. That only scratches the surface of the repertoire for Hanukkah that is out there and continues to be created.

It’s also true that Hanukkah just isn’t a “major holiday” for Jews in the way that Christmas is for Christians. It’s a festival more centered around family traditions than worship in the synagogue, which means there wasn’t the practical need for sacred worship music in the way that other holidays require.


You’ve been with the organization since its founding in 1993. What would you like us to know about Chicago a cappella’s history with the music on this program?

We’ve always included a few songs for Hanukkah on our annual “Holidays a cappella” concert, and that’s a tradition that now stretches back almost 30 years.  There are some favorites we’ve repeated a few times over the years, and some that we’ve only gotten to sing once or maybe twice ever.  We also produced a syndicated radio special for WFMT about 7 years ago, using a lot of our concert recordings of this music from over the years, so it’s fun to hear that coming up on various radio stations all over the country every year.

Two of the dreidl songs, Mark Zuckerman’s arrangement of the Yiddish version and Bob Applebaum’s “Funky Dreidl,” are definitely mainstays, and we’ve also performed Steve Barnett’s “S’vivon” (also a song about the dreidl!) many times.  But the set by Daniel Tunkel we only performed once, and the work by Joshua Fishbein, written in 2016, only appeared on our concerts once previously. Sometimes it’s more challenging to include the more complex and challenging works on a general “Holidays” themed program, which is why it’s so satisfying to have this opportunity to delve into all this repertoire as a set.


The program includes music from living composers, was that an important decision when gathering the music? If so, why?

We’ve definitely tried to support the work of living composers going all the way back to our first concert, so that is always a consideration.  I think it’s also true that a lot more a cappella choral music for Hanukkah has been written and arranged in the past 30 years or so, and so it’s not surprising that so much of this music is by living composers!


How does Hanukkah music reflect the celebration of the holiday? What about for you, personally?

If people think about Hanukkah music – even if they celebrate the holiday themselves – most would only know a couple of songs that they sing with their family, or maybe at a party.  We have those familiar tunes in this concert, but they are all given an update, some kind of twist to make you hear them in a totally new way.  Plus, composers have found all sorts of other Hanukkah texts to use as the base for brand new works, so we have discovered all kinds of songs to introduce to people.


Are there any pieces on this program that have personal meaning for you?

Bob Applebaum’s “Haneirot Halalu” is really special. It’s not a prayer that I ever heard, because we only sang the really short initial prayer when we lit the Hanukkah candles at my house. But it talks about lighting the candles and just staring at them, watching them burn. That really captures the simple beauty of the experience and reminds me of something that I grew up with and still cherish.


You mentioned a CD project with Cedille records. Why do you think it is important for Chicago a cappella to release this recording?

Nothing can replace the legitimacy of a professionally made recording, especially with a very high-quality label like Cedille Records. For most of these songs, it will be the very first recording, so for the composers, it’s almost like a calling card they can use to promote their works.  And for Chicago a cappella, it exponentially increases our reach compared to the people we’re able perform for in the Chicago area.

With the unbelievable reach of music that is distributed digitally these days, there is no way to know who will find the recording.  Any choir anywhere in the country – or anywhere in the world! — will have access to this repertoire with a simple internet search, so we hope it will inspire many others to perform it too.  It can also serve as an inspiration to commission new works from these brilliant composers and arrangers.

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