Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Live at Strathmore Hall

In commemoration of the 350th anniversary of Jews in America, choirs from 27 local synagogues joined together in a concert at the beautiful new Strathmore Hall in Rockville, Maryland. Marvin Kalb narrated this historical program. The soloists were the cantors and cantorial soloists from the various congregations. The choir of 700 singers was composed of adults and children, ranging in age from 6 to 75+.

The participants all came together at Strathmore 10 days prior to the concert. We were impressed with the beauty of the concert hall with its shimmery ceiling and its crisp acoustics. But mostly we were impressed with just how many people were involved and what a challenge the logistics for this concert would be. There was the issue of where to seat the various adult vocal sections. But even more difficult was the task of getting 300 children on and off stage – not once, but twice! The altos – my group – were seated in the first tier above the main stage, probably the best place to see and not have to deal with children. As we practiced just snippets of the various pieces, it began to dawn on us just how impressive this performance was going to be.

Saturday, the day of the first performance, we arrived 90 minutes ahead of showtime, ready to sing. Up to this point, we had only heard the pieces the choir was singing. It turns out that some of the coolest music was done by the cantors. After a quick runthrough, we had a quick bathroom-water break and waited for the lights to dim. Meanwhile, Strathmore Hall began to fill and fill and fill. Virtually every usable seat was occupied by a sell-out crowd.

We opened with some serious religious music – Shehekianu (Blessed Are You) and Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), Oseh Shalom (Grant Us Peace), and Hal’luhu (Psalm 150). The children’s choir did a remarkable arrangement of Oseh Shalom (in 6 settings) by our Teddy Klaus. We did a piece called Epilogue from the opera Touro, written by Cantor Arnold Salzman, based on a letter written by George Washington. We moved to some lighter more fun music in Yiddish, with the cantors doing Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. The choir followed with Leben Soll Columbus (Long Live Columbus). The cantors did another great piece which sounded almost like a Negro spiritual – Mi Ya’aleh (Psalm 24) – written by local composer Norma Brooks. The children’s choir sang Children of Freedom by Beth Schafer, with the last verse signed. The big finale was God Bless America, sung first in Yiddish by the children, and then with everyone, including the audience, singing in English. I don’t think there was a dry eye at the conclusion.

I don’t think anyone had anticipated what would happen at the end as 700 people tried to meet up with the other parts of their families. It was actually a little scary for the children.

But all in all it was a wonderful evening, filling everyone who sang and who listened with a love of being Jewish and a taste of the history of Jews in America.

The best part was that we got to do it all over again on Sunday afternoon. It turned out that the Saturday performance was almost like a dress rehearsal. Sunday was infinitely better – in terms of the music and the logistics. Everyone performed more as a group and there were no lost children at the end.

I hope there is another opportunity to do something like this again before another 50 years go by. It was truly an experience I will never forget!

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