24th Annual North American Jewish Choral Festival

By: Zamir

The 24thAnnual North American Jewish Choral Festival (NAJCF) brought new presenters and conductors to the delight of 400 singers from across North America and beyond who gathered to celebrate Jewish music in all its variety.

The Sunday night opening concert began on a high with a performance by Joshua Jacobson and the Zamir Chorale of Boston, but the bar was raised even higher by the appearance of the HaZamir Chamber Choir, under the direction of Matthew Lazar.  These 23 young voices, representing nearly 300 of their friends from HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, wowed the veteran singers in the room with their professionalism (they sang their entire program by heart), the diversity of their repertoire, and their outstanding soloists.  The evening ended with everyone elated by the knowledge that with teen singers performing at that level, the future of Jewish choral singing is assured.

The Festival’s first full day began on Monday morning with beautiful weather for Community Sing in the outdoor tent,  and continued with Instant Ensemble rehearsals conducted by Vicki Axe, Eleanor Epstein, Matthew Lazar and Nick Page.  Afternoon workshops and a second meeting of the Instant Choirs flew by, and before we knew it, we were back in the theater for appearances by Shirah: The Jewish Community Chorus of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades (conducted by Matthew Lazar) and the renown Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, with a variety of Jewish holiday and folk favorites in great arrangements for their six expert members.  A late night screening of excerpts from Ani Yerushalami, written and directed by Yehoram Gaon, served as an introduction to the many talents of this year’s Hallel V’Zimrah Award winner.

Tuesday morning introduced the Festival participants to Joey Weisenberg, director of music at Mechon Hadar in Manhattan, and an expert at bringing all members of any community into the song.  Later on Tuesday afternoon, Joey discussed his path to Jewish music and his personal musical philosophy in a Fine Tuning conversation with world music expert (and great fan of Jewish music!) Nick Page,  moderated by Eleanor Epstein, long known to the Festival community for her own unique perspectives on choral music making.  The conversation ended too soon, yielding to more workshops, more rehearsals and then a return to the theater for Tuesday night’s concert featuring the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, conducted by Binyumen Schaechter, and the Zamir Chorale, conducted by Matthew Lazar.  The evening was capped with a performance by the dynamic duo of  Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson and his equally talented son, Daniel Mendelson, in a program of cantorial duets, operatic arias (with a “yiddishe tam”) and a guest appearance by Cantor Alberto Mizrahi for a rousing rendition of Moyshe Oysher’s Chad Gadya with choral accompaniment “vamped” by the singing audience.  ( Since you really had to “see it to believe it” you can see it – again or for the first time – at http://youtu.be/ATjlxu4DG_M

A somewhat weary community got a much-needed warm-up on Wednesday morning from Faith Steinsnyder, filled with good humor as well as some helpful hints for getting and keeping the voice going.  Vocally prepared, we were emotionally stirred by the discovery of Eleanor Epstein’s moving and “congregation-friendly” arrangement of Debbie Friedman’s “Sh’ma/And You Shall Love,” before being entertained by the heart-warming  and remarkably accomplished choral performances of “Pre-Zamir,” the children’s chorus formed at the Festival and directed by Rachel Brook (conductor of HaZamir Westchester and clearly adept at preparing a somewhat younger choir.)

Wednesday flew by in another blur of stimulating workshops and increasingly focused rehearsals as everyone watched the final performances drawing closer, but the community took a well-dressed (and lubricated!) breath at the evening’s cocktail party before convening for the always exciting “Staircase Sing” of Louis Lewandowski’s rousing setting of Psalm 150, Halleluyah.  You can watch yourself participate in that sing, or share the moment with your family and friends by clicking here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQdMo8o6x0w&feature=youtu.be

A highlight of the Festival was the presentation of the 10th annual Hallel V’Zimrah Award to legendary Israeli performer Yehoram Gaon.  Yehoram performed his signature Hineni Kan, and then joined the audience as soloist for renditions of  Cuando El Rey Nimrod, Shab’chi Yerushalayim (with Mizrahi as his partner) and Al Kol Eleh.  Gaon departed all too soon; after agreeing to be this year’s honoree last February, his nephew became engaged and selected Thursday, July 25 as his wedding date, so rather than disappoint the Festival, he flew to New York on Tuesday morning (his originally-scheduled arrival, to accommodate a prior commitment in Israel) knowing he would need to depart 40 hours later!  Still, Gaon’s brief appearance captivated the audience, and set the tone for a festive and diverse late-night program that included an appearance by the winners of Kelly Shepard’s first-ever Barbershop Tag Competition; a performance of Yehezkel Braun’s Vayimalet Kayin, written in 1960 for the Yarkon Trio of Benny Amdursky, Arik Einstein and Yehoram Gaon (represented at the Festival by Larry Sandberg, Scott Sokol and Mati Lazar); and a repeat performance of Nick Page’s K’Ayal Ta’arog, first introduced at Monday morning’s Community Sing and reprised by popular demand.

And all-too-soon it was Thursday morning, and the Instant Ensembles took the stage.   Vicki Axe’s choir impressed with enthusiastic performances that belied their lack of experience as choral singers, and set the tone for the larger, more veteran singers who sang under the inspiring direction of Nick Page, Eleanor Epstein and Matthew Lazar.  After a round-up of “thank-yous” to the many people whose contributions made this event possible, the 24th North American Jewish Choral Festival concluded with the community’s heartfelt singing of David Burger’s T’filah (LiShlom Medinat Yisrael – Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel) – and an invitation to everyone to return for next summer’s gala 25th anniversary celebration July 20 – 24, 2014.  Save the dates – If you love Jewish music, you’ve got to be there!