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Total Immersion in Jewish Choral Music

Total Immersion in Jewish Choral Music

With sessions running back-to-back and performances by 18 Jewish choirs from across the country, the North American Jewish Choral Festival this year was more spectacular than ever before. Celebrating its 25th year, the festival took place on July 20th-24th at the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa in Kerhonkson, New York.  And for lovers of Jewish choral music like me, it was enlightening, exhilarating, and exhausting!

The sheer number and variety of community choir performances was a highlight of the event. The U.S.-based Jewish choirs represented places from Denver to Milwaukee to Montana to Boston to Teaneck to Miami. Their skill in creating beautiful expressions of Jewish culture in diverse locations was simply humbling. Equally as moving was the dynamic growth and professionalism of singers from HaShir - a network of choral chapters of Jewish teens across the United States and Israel - as well as the new choral initiative, Zamir Noded, for young adults.

For participants, the festival offered the chance to learn new repertoire, sharpen sight-singing skills, and explore different musical genres and traditions from various parts of the world, like China and Yemen. Some delved into the art of Yiddish song or immersed themselves in the works of cherished Israeli composers like Naomi Shemer. Some even learned to sing in a barbershop quartet.

While all this may sound a bit overwhelming, the festival was structured for each person to gain maximum value, and included:

  • Daily community sings: Every morning, we learned several new pieces--each with a different conductor-- in just 15 minutes. Pretty remarkable! For someone like me, a member of a small choir that learns much of our repertoire by ear, this was good exercise in sight reading and instant performance.
  • Instant ensembles: Rehearsals were held each day with a smaller, select group to learn music more in depth toward an onstage performance on the last day of the festival.
  • Workshops and seminars: With numerous workshops available each afternoon on topics ranging from new compositions from the Shalshelet Foundation to learning rhythmic notation to the melodies of Russian Jews, there was something for everyone to enjoy.

The schedule was intensive, but there were opportunities to relax, take a swim, go for a morning run, or just sit under a big willow tree and hang out. People came with or without their home choir groups; some even brought their families. And although meals were provided by the festival, the town of New Paltz, only 15 minutes away, offered good restaurants, as well as charming clothing and antique shops to browse through.

Major features of the festival in this milestone year were the award presentations given by the Zamir Choral Foundation. Founder and Director Matthew Lazar received the LaM’natze’ach Award in gratitude for his career-long devotion to Jewish choral music and his creation of the North American Jewish Choral Festival. The 11thHallel V’Zimrah Award was given to Marsha Bryan Edelman and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, who have collaborated with Matthew Lazar to realize his dream of a North American Jewish Choral Festival. Yasher koach to all, and see you at next year’s festival!

Audrey Merwin is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s communication team. She edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah, sings in the United Synagogue of Hoboken choir, leads services, and teaches in the synagogue’s learning center. 

Audrey Merwin

Published: 8/07/2014

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Music
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