HaZamir, the international Jewish high school choir, has a new theme this year: all Jerusalem-based music.
The Old City of Jerusalem is getting a tune-up — by some teenage altos, sopranos and tenors.
HaZamir, the international Jewish high school choir, is beginning another year with the start of school. This year, the theme is all Jerusalem-based music.
Marsha Bryan Edelman, founding conductor and educational director of HaZamir Philadelphia and administrator for the Zamir Choral Foundation, said the local chapter, which is comprised of only about 10 to 15 students, often pairs with nearby chapters in Cherry Hill, Highland Park, N.J., or Baltimore.
The students usually end the year with collaborative performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City with the accompaniment of nearly 400 other members.
HaZamir, which translates to “the nightingale,” now has 35 chapters across the U.S. and Israel, but it started with just a couple chapters 20 years ago.
The Zamir Choral Foundation has been around since 1960 for college students to participate in a choir. But an idea came about to share the opportunity among high school students, as well, so they can have a similar experience singing Jewish music at a high level.
“High school kids often are singing in choirs in public schools, but they’re singing a lot of church music. So we wanted an opportunity for Jewish kids to sing Jewish music,” Edelman said.
The first chapter for high school students began in Manhattan, but Edelman took it upon herself to start the Philadelphia chapter in 1995.
The group is open to any high schooler — and sometimes exceptional eighth graders — who identify as Jewish.
“These days, Reform kids don’t often meet kids who aren’t Reform, and Conservative kids don’t meet kids who aren’t Conservative, and Orthodox kids don’t meet kids who aren’t Orthodox,” she explained. “We don’t have any denominational barriers. Everything is kosher, shomer Shabbat, so anybody who feels comfortable singing in a mixed group can do so without feeling that they have to compromise in any way, shape or form.”
As the educational director, Edelman makes sure the kids get an understanding of the notes they’re harmonizing.
They learn everything from classical to contemporary Jewish music: songs by Salamone Rossi, the first person to write choral music for Jewish singers in the 16th century; classic liturgical music from the 19th century, which is performed in synagogues today; hits from American artists like Josh Nelson and Debbie Friedman; and arrangements of Israeli pop music from Achinoam Nini or classic songs like Zum Gali Gali.
“There’s nothing that you can point to that we don’t do as long as it’s Jewish or Israeli in some way,” she said.
“Our repertoire this year is going to be focused on Jerusalem because this year is the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem,” she continued. “We are reprising a work that was written for HaZamir on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, so we’re bringing that back.”
Through the educational background, Edelman said “they’re getting a fabulous Jewish, Zionist musical and social opportunity.”
“The kids benefit enormously,” she continued. “With all due respect to all the choirs at all of their schools, they’re probably not having the opportunity to sing with 400 kids from across the country. The quality of the singing is really superior. They have the opportunity to work with a lot of different conductors, which is a good educational experience on a musical basis. They’re getting a Jewish education, which is different from and, in some cases, the only Jewish education that the kids are getting, in terms of the background of the music.”
Working with HaZamir for more than 20 years, Edelman said it has definitely impacted her own life.
“I have become a better conductor, a better singer, developed as choral arranger. I personally made great friends and learned a great deal. And the opportunity to share my love for music with teens who really get it is very exciting,” she said.
Edelman also conducts two adult ensembles in New Jersey, “but working with the kids is a different kind of experience, and it’s thrilling to see the excitement of the kids and to also watch them grow as musicians.”
And even though taking the stage at these famous halls has become commonplace, she is still ecstatic to see it through their eyes.
“At this point, pretty much all of our big concerts are at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, so it’s not new, but every year we have new kids in the ensemble. It’s exciting to watch their eyes bug out of their heads as they stand on the stage and think about all the other performers they’ve heard of who have sung there,” she recalled.
“It’s thrilling to me to watch the kids be so thrilled. You cannot imagine what it is like to watch 400 kids standing on stage not moving a muscle except their mouths. They stand like professionals and they sing the entire program by heart.
“You have 800 eyes staring at the conductor. It’s absolutely thrilling — not to mention the size of the sound is amazing.”
In an era when people are constantly “labeling” others, Edelman said HaZamir is a great opportunity to let the kids feel comfortable being themselves.
“Singing in HaZamir not only breaks down those denominational barriers, but singing in a choir, you learn that — you can’t have a choir of all sopranos, you need altos and tenors and basses. We revel in our differences. We need to be different from each other. We need — literally — to harmonize with each other. It’s a great life lesson beyond the musical lesson.”
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