A Musically Inspired Night Celebrates the Rebbe’s Life

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On June 15, Philadelphia-area Chabad rabbis and their supporters gathered in the Crystal Tea Room of the Wanamaker Building in Center City to commemorate the 21st yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

As Israel Edelson walked to the piano, he gazed out on his orchestra, a sea of professionals ready to play with precision and soulfulness. To resounding applause, he took his place and began to play. 

On June 15, Philadelphia-area Chabad rabbis and their supporters gathered in the Crystal Tea Room of the Wanamaker Building in Center City to commemorate the 21st yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. The event, “Wandering Souls, Wandering Candles,” presented the story of Edelson — an accomplished maestro and onetime protégé of Leonard Bernstein, and his encounter with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and its music — through both a video documentary and a live musical performance featuring Edelson himself.
Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, chairman of the umbrella organization Agudas Chasidei Chabad and director of the regional headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch, saw in the event an opportunity to inspire others to take the Rebbe’s emphasis on revealing the true nature of the self to heart.
 
Edelson’s “music is a very important component of bringing the [Rebbe’s] message to the people and the people to the message,” explained Shemtov. “His story reached and touched people in a way the average person could not have.” 
 
The music, much of it based on wordless melodies known in Chasidic circles as nigunim, led Devorah Kees, a cardiac sonographer from Ambler, to “see the beauty in every aspect of the world.”
“Nigunim are the [soul’s] ability to express itself in this physical world,” she said. Their “peaks and valleys or crescendos and decrescendos are truly moving.”
 
These feelings are what Bentzi Avtzon, the producer of “Wandering Souls, Wandering Candles,” was after.
 
“I wanted to create one seamless [piece] of storytelling,” he said, for the audience “to hear the music in the story and the story in the music.” After meeting Edelson last year, Avtzon got to know the full scope of the dynamic musician who said to him, “If the story can move people, I’m happy to do it.”
 
Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, in the early 1950s, Edelson built a storied career in professional music dating back to his family’s move to Israel in 1966. Most of his training and early conducting was in classical music. Throughout the 1970s, he studied at numerous schools and conservatories, and by 1979, he had become an accomplished pianist, arranger and teacher when he was presented a life-changing opportunity.
 
In the summer of that year, he studied under Bernstein. Thanks to the conductor’s tutelage, Edelson gained an appreciation for the role of an orchestral leader. He understood that a conductor did not just lead musicians through a musical piece, but must also enliven the soul of music and musician alike. However, Edelson was uncertain where he would find his own soul, much less how to teach others to find theirs.
 
Before he entered the BBC-Rupert International Young Conductor’s competition, he was encouraged to attend a Chasidic gathering of the Rebbe’s followers in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Crown Heights. During that gathering and the many Shabbat dinners held with Rabbi Yoel Kahn he subsequently attended, Edelson kept coming back to the “simple but deep” melodies that punctuated such events. Kahn, who was responsible for memorizing the Rebbe’s public talks on Shabbat and holidays — when writing is forbidden by Jewish law — encouraged Edelson to continue coming to the gatherings and helped him compose arrangements and variations of classic Chasidic melodies.
 
At the same time, Edelson started to feel the pressure of the competition and, as he expressed in the video, “began to feel lost.” Just before Edelson left for London, Kahn gave him a tape containing music sung by the Rebbe. The first track that struck Edelson was “Tzomo L’cho Nafshi,” whose few lyrics come from the opening verses of Psalm 63.
 
In the recording, the Rebbe sang one verse and the Chasidim gathered in the room would sing it back. Edelson said hearing the song was “deeply moving,” but, he added, he was also “baffled by the nigun’s simplicity.”
 
Edelson won the competition and kept working with Bernstein while staying with Kahn, studying Torah and Chasidic teachings. A few months after the competition, Edelson informed his mentor that he would no longer be working on Shabbat. This move cost him any realistic chance to have a career similar to Bernstein’s.
 
Ever since that life-altering decision, Edelson has been busy producing numerous albums of his arrangements of Chasidic, mostly Chabad, music. He has also spent his time arranging pieces for various Jewish organizations, most notably the Tzivos Hashem Children’s Choir in Jerusalem and writing the music for last year’s memorial of the Rebbe’s yahrzeit in Philadelphia.
 
Nina Seckel Israel, a realtor in Lafayette Hill, enjoyed Edelson’s “wonderful, great, spiritual” music.
 
She enthused that Edelson’s music “makes me smile, tap my feet and definitely uplifts me.” 

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