“Old York Road Story” at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel tributes the works of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and will host performances by choirs and cantors from congregations along Old York Road in Melrose Park, Elkins Park and Abington.
Jets are sure to be smoking and Sharks are sure to be snapping down the aisles of the sanctuary at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel when the synagogue hosts “Old York Road Story,” Jan. 31. The concert — this year’s iteration of what has now become an annual collaborative event put on by the Kehillah of Old York Road — is a tribute to the works of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and will be performed by choirs and cantors from congregations along Old York Road in Melrose Park, Elkins Park and Abington.
The legendary music director of the New York Philharmonic and one of the most recognizable figures in the annals of 20th-century music, Bernstein is known for composing such musicals as West Side Story, Candide and On the Town. He also served as music advisor to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and was a professor of music at Brandeis University.
Performers during the celebration include Hazzan Howard Glantz from Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Cantor Amy Levy from KI, cantorial soloist Rebecca Schwartz from Congregation Kol Ami, Hazzan Jeffrey Weber from Beth Sholom Congregation, Cantor Elena Zarkh from Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, adult choirs of the Kehillah of Old York Road and Hazzan David Tilman, the music director at KI.
Tilman, who is also conducting the event, said the idea for an annual choral and cantorial Chanukah celebration was first floated back in 2005. “We started doing these joint ventures up and down Old York Road, with the idea being that as the community became a little smaller, we have an opportunity to maximize our impact by joining together.”
The concert usually took place around or in anticipation of Chanukah. But since Tilman’s son, Howard, got married during that time period last year, they held a children’s concert instead and postponed this one until now. Previously, Tilman was hazzan at Beth Sholom for 36 years, arranging musical events among his other duties. He later joined KI as choir director, so now he can “just continue the work with a different address,” he joked.
Past events have hosted different models — such as classical music, outside performers brought in or even last year’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, composed by George Frideric Handel — but this year’s Bernstein tribute marks a distinctly Jewish musical statement.
Performing Bernstein’s works — among them, hits from West Side Story and Candide — will give fans a head start on the upcoming celebrations in honor of the centennial of the Maestro’s 2018 birth.
“What really makes this different is the theme,” said Tilman. “It’s this kickoff to the world celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein being a great educator, composer, conductor and pianist.
“We decided this year to aim equally high, if not higher. Leonard Bernstein is maybe the greatest American composer of the 20th century. His Jewishness pervades almost everything that he wrote in his prodigious catalog of music.”
Bernstein’s most well-known work, West Side Story, was originally written as East Side Story, which was to chronicle the doomed love affair of a Jew and a Catholic in the Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season. The female lead was originally a Holocaust survivor who left Israel for America, and the conflict revolved around anti-Semitism. However, the producers didn’t think that would sell.
Tilman also noted that the opening number mirrors the tune of “tekiah” blown from a shofar. “Bernstein’s Jewishness permeated about 99 percent of everything he ever wrote,” he repeated.
Selections from West Side Story will take up about half of the event — so be ready to sing along to favorites like “Maria,” “Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “America” and “I Feel Pretty” — as well as pieces from Candide, Peter Pan and others.
But the major focus of the event is on Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, his 1965 piece of five psalms performed in Hebrew that has been produced by Jews and non-Jews throughout the world.
Bernstein was commissioned by the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England to create it. “It’s probably the most popular choral piece in Western music history in the 20th century,” Tilman added.
For Tilman, performing Bernstein’s music is more personal. He first met Bernstein in the early 1970s when Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and again in Philadelphia in 1986, when Bernstein returned to one of his alma maters, the Curtis Institute of Music.
Tilman learned Chichester Psalms from his professor at the Juilliard School, Abraham Kaplan, who in turn learned it directly from Bernstein. “I feel a real link to the piece in that way,” said Tilman.
Aside from the cantors, the 60-person choir will perform two of Bernstein’s other Hebrew pieces, Yigdal and Simhu Na.
Levy, event coordinator and cantor at KI, said about 900 people attended last year’s event. She said that they’re hoping to pack the sanctuary again for this one and that she’s looking forward to singing some of her favorites like “My House” from Peter Pan. That’s exciting for her, she exclaimed, “because it’s actually in my house at KI.”
KI partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for this year’s event as well.
“The Kehillah of Old York Road is all grassroots,” said Levy. “There are no paid professionals; it’s just leaders from community, and they are helping with all the volunteer efforts and the connection with the Federation.
“It’s not only good for the singers, the cantors and the musicians, it’s also wonderful for the congregants and for community members to be involved and to feel a sense of ownership over this event as well.”
In addition, Levy said, she’s forged deep relationships with other cantors and community members along Old York Road through this event. “We have a really amazing community here,” she said. “The community rallies around music, the choirs and the cantors and really comes together, so that passion for that kind of music as well as the idea that we’re our own little Old York Road story.”
“We both feel a great sense of both anticipation and overwhelming joy when all these people up and down Old York Road come together to make music on a high level,” Tilman added.
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