Choirs Cruise Down Jewish Music Pipeline

Cantor David Tilman conducting choirs of Sing Hallelujah. | Photo provided

If these choral singers don’t have the pipes, they have 6,938 others to back them up.

They will take the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts stage March 21 at 8 p.m. with more than 100 other local singers for Sing Hallelujah.

The production incorporates area choirs, cantors, synagogue leaders and non-Jewish community choirs to perform 19th- and 20th-century Jewish music across the European, American and Israeli spectrum, highlighting the use of the organ.

Some of note include the 18-minute Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein — the first time it will be performed in the Kimmel with focus on the organ.

The idea of conducting this event began almost three years ago, with the goal of incorporating the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Kimmel’s Verizon Hall.

A musical series there a few years back gathered together a handful of church choirs to present music that is versatile and powerful alongside the organ.

“It would be wonderful if we could include a program of Jewish content in this organ series,” said Cantor David Tilman, choral director of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and conductor and music director of Sing Hallelujah.

So, Tilman created this performance to showcase Jewish musical creativity over 150 years across Germany, Austria, France, Israel and the United States — and it also features the organ.

The pipe organ was introduced during the Enlightenment period of music in Germany, Tilman said, and became part and parcel with just about every congregation.

“There was a time that the organ was basic and inherited every Reform synagogue and maybe 40 percent of Conservative synagogues,” he added.

The first half of the show covers 19th-century Jewish music, and the second delves into the 20th century, featuring music by Hazzan Emeritus of Congregation Adath Jeshurun Charles Davidson; composers Abraham Wolf Binder; Max Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu (which was also featured on a Barbra Streisand album); Kurt Weill’s Kiddush; and Bernstein’s version of Hashkiveinu.

Choirs from across the community make up a coalition of 160 singers, who represent Cantors Assembly Ensemble of the Delaware Valley; Beth El Adult Choir; Makhelat Beth Sholom; Nashirah, The Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia; Choirs of the Old York Road Kehillah/Jewish Community (Adath Jeshurun, Beth Sholom Congregation, Congregation Kol Ami, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am and KI); Sharim V’Sharot, People of Song; and a non-Jewish choir, the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges.

Some will take up just the the first or second half of the performance, but their voices blend together in certain songs, similar to how Tilman said the organ has a “great variety of tonal color.”

The Kimmel’s 32-ton organ ranks as one of the largest mechanical-action concert hall organs in the country and 47th in the world, according to the Kimmel. It’s made up of nearly 7,000 pipes, four blowers, 300 levels of memory, 111 stops, and pipe sizes ranging from the size of a straw to 32 feet tall.

“Like the choir, they’re not all playing at the same time,” he said, “but the variety of the numbers of pipes make the variety of tonal colors just almost infinite.”

He hopes attendees appreciate the notes of cultural heritage and revel in it.

“Music of the Jewish people begins to resemble music of the host community, thus Jewish composers who live in Berlin write music that sounds German. Jewish composers who live in Vienna write music that sounds Viennese,” he explained.

There are uniquely Jewish kernels or phrases throughout, however, like incorporating Hebrew, which personify the music.

“Music acquires its Jewishness by being experienced in its Jewish tradition,” he added. The power and beauty of that combined with choral music, cantorial soloists and the organ is “majestic and intimate at the same time … joyous and introspective.”

“I’ve seen time and again how the choral experience brings people together to share this wonderful statement of Jewish cultural identity,” he continued, and also overcomes the barriers between denominations.

In order for people to be innovative in the future, they have to know where they come from, and that’s a rich Jewish musical tradition, added Tilman, who helped bring 260 singers together for the 1998 joint performance between The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I feel nachat at having over these 44 years [of my career] being involved in any number of Jewish musical experiences that bring the community together,” he said. 

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