Kapiti Chamber Choir tackles highly ambitious all-Jewish programme including a major Bloch work

A Festival of Jewish Music

Kapiti Chamber Choir conducted by Eric Sidoti with Douglas Mews (organ), Miranda Wilson (cello) and Jenny Scarlet (piano)

Ernest Bloch: Avodath Hakodesh with Roger Wilson (baritone) as the Cantor

Marc Lavry: Song of the Valley; La Rosa (Sephardic folk song arranged by Paul Ben-Haim; Hasidic Niggun (Hasidic folk song arraged by Bonia Shur; Bloch: Suite No 3 for solo cello; Schoenberg: ‘Ei, du Lütte’ (Platt-Deutsch song); Richard Fuchs: Hymnus an Gott; Mordecai Seter: A Woman of
; Lavry: Hora, Song, Op 206 No 3; Bonia Shur: ‘The Rain is over’; Paul Ben-Haim, arranger: Adon Olam (Benediction)

Kapiti Uniting Church, Raumati Beach

Sunday 19 July, 2:30 pm

Two hours of composers who, I imagine, would have been no more than names to most, even those with a fairly good knowledge of 20th century music, might have looked a bit unappetising to an audience for choral music. So to start, I was surprised to find the church pretty full. And though there was nothing to suggest that other than Jewish music would be in the programme, I rather expected that music director Eric Sidoti might have thrown in a couple of more familiar pieces.

The main thing was Bloch’s big Jewish liturgical work, but the first half was given over to non-Bloch, apart from a piece for solo cello, his Suite No 3, played by Miranda Wilson.

The rest comprised music entirely by Jewish composers, mostly religious in character. Four Israeli composers featured, no doubt familiar to any aficionado in the audience: Paul Ben-Haim born 1897 in Munich, Marc Lavry, born in Riga in 1903, Mordecai Seter, born in Novorossiysk in Russia in 1916 and Bonia Shur, also born in Riga, 1923.

Bloch’s Cello Suite: Apart from its shape, five movements alternating quick and slow, suggest Bach as a model, though a glance at Wikipedia’s list of music for solo cello will deter most people from seeking influences. In contrast to the emotional warmth of the popular Schelomo for cello and orchestra, the piece sounded a wee bit remote and soulless; perhaps the performance could have risked more expressiveness and colour, though my impression is likely to have more to do with things that don’t reveal themselves at first hearing.

The first piece, Lavry’s Emek, or Song of the Valley: Rest in coming, unaccompanied, began hesitantly, but soon gained confidence, comfortable in its modal character and staccato rhythms, the kibbutz setting hinting at a kinship with early Soviet workers’ songs and dances. A similar spirit existed in Lavry’s Hora Nirkoda (‘Let’s dance’. Greek for ‘Dance’ is ‘Choros’: a borrowing?).

The first arrangement by Paul Ben-Haim was of a song in Ladino, the Spanish dialect language of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain by Philip II round 1492, and fled to the Levant, Greece and other parts of Europe. La Rosa, like Emek, was unaccompanied, carrying a beguiling tune. The last piece in the first half was a Benediction (Adon Olam) also arranged by Ben-Haim. Roger Wilson, as Cantor, alternated in this with the Choir, in a serious six/eight rhythm.

Bonia Shur contributed an arrangement of a Hassidic folk song, with piano accompaniment, vigorously pulsed, charmingly sung. His own song, The Rain is over, comes from The Song of Songs; though I hadn’t heard it before, it struck me as a rather more alluring song than it actually sounded here.

Mordecai Seter’s Eschet Chayil (A Woman of Valour) began with a couple of women’s voices in duet, soon joined by the rest of the choir which became quite animated, with changing dance rhythms in the piano.

That left two songs from unexpected quarters: Schoenberg’s setting of a Platt-Deutsch poem, ‘Ei, du Lütte’; a delightful, sprightly little song from the young composer, aged about 30.  Richard Fuchs was a German/Jewish composer who sought refuge in New Zealand in 1939 and was ignored as a composer during his eight final years here, but was rediscovered through the efforts of his grandson, theatre director Danny Mulheron.  Fuchs’s Hymnus an Gott was sung by Roger Wilson, a Hasidic religious poem expressing emphatic belief.

So, although there was no departure from a Jewish/Hebrew musical programme, I found the variety of the generally unfamiliar music interesting and enjoyable, prompting me, as I write this, to explore these paths further by means of the communication and information technology now at our disposal.

Then in the second half came the 50 minute-long Avodath Hakodesh, a setting of the Jewish Sabbath morning service. Though Bloch is still known (in his lifetime, much to his annoyance) as a Jewish composer, he struggled to shake off the image. Little of his music was Jewish, though critics have been unable to resist finding signs of Jewish music in his work. A generous commission prompted this large-scale work (though he didn’t get paid in full). He thought of it as an oratorio though there is no narrative element, a necessary feature I suppose.

He wrote: “It far surpasses a ‘Jewish’ service, it has become a cosmic poem, a glorification of the laws of the universe.” Rather than an oratorio, it has been compared to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

He wrote it, he said, “not for the Jews – who would probably fight it – nor the critics” but for himself. Nevertheless, the music, at times harsh and austere, has the warmth, sensuality, passionate intensity, and the fervour of Hebrew literature, as critic Olin Downes wrote about a New York performance.

It is hard to detect details of the overarching musical structure at first hearing, the repetition of musical motifs and their relationship to liturgical elements, yet such things are present, and they make their impact in a subliminal way.

Though not quite a substitute for the orchestra, the digital organ in Douglas Mews’s hands was much better than a piano would have been, particularly in the Symphonic Interludes which Bloch uses to create a sense of unity.

There were many parts that were impressive, for example in the Toroh Tzivah in Movement III where
Cantor and choir alternate in the commanding verses about the laws of Moses; and at the peaceful, pastoral Etz Chayim he in Movement IV. And in the more eventful Fifth Movement where the Cantor, chanting in English, expounds on universal ideals of human behaviour and the tone becomes impassioned; and a calm spirit returns with the soulful Adon Olom.

Though the demands of such an ambitious and spiritually infused work are frankly more than a choir of this kind can be expected to bring off very convincingly, the whole was impressive, and one admired the conductor’s endless energy in the guidance of singers with clear entries, and gestures that characterized the ever-changing moods and tone of the music.

Conductor, choir, baritone Wilson and organist Mews have done us a favour in exposing this rarity, and the accompanying pieces in the first half, to our awareness: now we know there’s more to Jewish-coloured music than Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Schelomo and Kol Nidrei.


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