‘Sing Hallelujah’ Returns, Celebrates Jewish Broadway Legacy

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Editor’s Note: “Sing Hallelujah” has been postponed to 8 p.m. on Nov. 22.

 Cantor David F. Tilman conducts at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, where he’s been the choir director since 2011.
Cantor David F. Tilman conducts at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, where he’s been the choir director since 2011.
(Courtesy of the Kimmel Center)

When Cantor David F. Tilman retired from Beth Sholom Congregation in 2011 after 36 years as hazzan and music director, he could’ve staked out a more passive next chapter, something ceremonial, something befitting a man called emeritus.

But that wouldn’t have been Tilman’s style. Instead, he’s proven over the last decade that he’s got plenty of music left in him and enough belief in the power of Jewish choirs to fill Philadelphia’s biggest halls with it.

“I continue to be very invested in the Jewish choral experience as a way to bring the community together and teach belief in God, in the Jewish people and love of the state of Israel,” said Tilman, who, shortly after his retirement from Beth Sholom, became choir director at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel.

“Singing choral music is an overwhelming and amazing musical vehicle to open up the hearts, first and foremost of the singers and, secondly, of the people for whom they are singing.”

There is verifiable legitimacy to what Tilman is saying. A recent study cited by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that “singing in groups has been linked to better mental and physical health, a sense of belonging and feeling connected to others, better social skills, increased civic engagement …” and more.

This isn’t news to Tilman; he’s known it for the past 45 years.

Since 1998, bringing Jewish choirs together for mega concert events has been the thing that’s made Tilman most visible. That’s when he was the chorus master for 260 voices singing alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic in celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary before a full house of 20,000 at the then-CoreStates Center.

“We were right on top of the ice,” exclaimed Tilman recently, as though he could still feel the electricity of that night.

At 73, Tilman’s still a showman, and the bright lights — they still beckon.

On March 17, Tilman will stand atop the maestro’s podium in Verizon Hall for the third consecutive year, as he brings another edition of “Sing Hallelujah” to the Kimmel Center.

This year’s program, “Broadway: A Jewish Legacy,” will celebrate the Jewish composers and lyricists without whom Broadway as we know it would not be.

“We wanted to present a program that demonstrates the contribution of the Jewish people in general and Jewish composers specifically to the stage,” Tilman said. “The stage meaning the Broadway stage, meaning the Yiddish theater and then also the movies.”

The voices, sourced from synagogue choirs in both Pennsylvania and South Jersey, will number more than 200 and will present the work of Jewish composers and lyricists like George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz and especially, in recognition of his 90th birthday, Stephen Sondheim.
There’s also a treat for fans of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Canter David Tilman conducing a choir
After nearly a half-century of conducting choirs, Tilman said he still believes in the power of joining voices in song to build communities and faith. (Photo by Morgan Horell)

“A special ‘Fiddler’ section,” said Tilman, “commemorating the 55 years that ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ has been a part of American Jewish life and culture.”

That alone would be plenty to get the bubbes and zaydes laughing and crying in their seats, but the real pièce de résistance comes in the form of two guest stars: Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak, who played Tevye and Golde, respectively, in the Yiddish production of “Fiddler” that recently finished a wildly successful run on Broadway. They will perform the songs from “Fiddler” you’ve heard all your life, but this time they’ll be backed by a full choir and everyone will be singing in Yiddish.

Just mentioning the possibility of something so august seems sufficient to induce a kinehora.

“The singers are wildly enthusiastic about this music,” Tilman said. “But it’s difficult music; it’s not easy music. And it has to be treated with as much care and as much preparation as if one were doing a serious classical program.”

Whether it’s classical or jazz, theatrical or liturgical, if the topic is choral music, Tilman’s serious and abundantly thoughtful about it. In addition to a cantorial degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he has a degree in choral conducting from Juilliard. That someone of his background and accomplishment believes so strongly in the musical and spiritual power of the chorus is a powerful testament to the medium and its potential staying power.

“I’ve been in this work for many, many years now, and I have found that whether it’s with adults or teenagers or little children, choral singing, and particularly Jewish choral singing, creates such a feeling of exalted communal cooperation,” he said.

“When they join their voices together and achieve the goal of mastering the repertoire, there’s a sense of identity and purpose above and beyond their individual souls; they become one collective soul.”

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