Maestro Stanley Sperber
The evening’s program was rich in content, offering a wide selection of a-cappella mixed choir repertoire. The singers set the scene with Salamone Rossi’s 6-voiced motet “Od’cha” (Psalm 118:21-24), their natural singing voices blending to create a bright, unadulterated choral sound, allowing for the work’s meaning to shine through:
‘I thank you that you have answered me
And brought salvation to me.
The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the cornerstone…’
The choir gave a beautifully introspective performance of Henry Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer” (Psalm 102:2), its suspensions and false relations used to communicate and color the text. Sperber’s reading of William Byrd’s anthem for six voices “Sing Joyfully” (Psalm 81:2-5) uses incisive textures to fire the piece’s brilliant counterpoint and exuberance, vocal textures also evoking timbres of the timbrel, harp, viol and trumpet, all mentioned in the text.
A unique work on the program, and of Giuseppe Verdi’s oeuvre, was “Ave Maria” (1889), a motet based on a bizarre enigmatic scale devised- and advertised in a journal by a certain Adolfo Crescentini, who challenged composers to write a work using it. The aging Verdi took up the challenge, his result magical and austere, unusual in its harmonic ambiguity and a technical tour-de-force. The Academy Chamber Choir’s performance of it was soul-searching and spiritual, the members’ transparent choral sound allowing for the rising and falling cantus firmus, the “scala enigmatica”, to be followed.
A central and larger work of the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St, Cecilia” opus 27 (text: W.H.Auden), one of the choral masterpieces of 20th century English music and a work that challenges performers on many levels – technical, emotional and interpretational. The Academy Choir’s fresh, bright and poignantly luminous timbre was wholly suited to the concept of early 20th century British (and the young Britten’s) choral sound (the boy soprano solo in the third section replaced here, for obvious reasons, by a woman soprano); Sperber and his singers worked effectively with Auden’s imaginative text and precarious transitions.
Hungarian music, of one form or another, occupied a central part of the program. There were two arrangements of pieces by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1744-1828), the first Hassidic Rebbe of Hungary, sometimes referred to as the “sweet singer of Israel”; Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of Taub’s “Royz, Royz” (Rose, rose) was sung in Yiddish, while “Szól a Kakas Már”(The rooster crows in the morning), a traditional Hungarian Hassidic tune arranged in lush harmonies by the choir’s associate conductor Tami Kleinhaus, was performed in Hungarian. We heard Zoltán Kodály’s arrangement of the Hungarian folksong “Esti Dal” (Evening darkness overtook me near the woods), its touching melodic beauty outlined by unaffected soprano voices set against gentle humming and, then surprisingly, Koday’s full-bodied setting of “Baruch Shem K’vod” (Blessed be the name of the glory) from the Jewish prayer book, in Hebrew! Stanley Sperber spoke of Kodaly’s interaction with Jews and his familiarity with “nussach” (traditional Jewish melody). The program also included works of Hungarian-born Israeli composers. In Oedoen Partos’s (1907-1977) fine setting of the “Mavdil” prayer (Who distinguishes), based on traditional Sephardic tunes, the choir presented the work’s strong melodiousness and ample dissonances with joy and spontaneity. Composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu (b.1932), who was a student of Kodály in Budapest, was present at the Academy concert. His tonal, playful “Arba Midot” (Four Qualities) was followed by “She’elot Habanim” (Questions of the Sons), a small but vivid canvas in which Hajdu’s writing brings to life characters from the Passover Haggadah with sharp theatrical color, humor and some references to Jewish cantillation.
Still within the realm of Jewish music, the choir performed Stanley Sperber’s arrangement of Ben Zion Shenker’s “Eshet Chayil” (A Woman of Worth), Proverbs 31:10-31. Shenker (b.1925), a Modzitz Hassid from Brooklyn, has done much to maintain the Modzitz musical tradition, but is also a leading composer of Chassidic music in his own right. “Eshet Chayil” is one of his best known Sabbath songs; the choir gave this jaunty arrangement a sympathetic and charming rendition.
Maestro Sperber then led his singers through a selection of Israeli song repertoire: following a spirited reading of Mordechai Zeira’s “Shirat Hechalil” (Song of the Flute) (arr. Michael Wolpe), the darbuka accompaniment lending zing and regional flavor, we heard a sensitive performance of David Zehavi’s “Halicha LeKesaria” (A Walk to Caesarea), in an arrangement by Shai Sobol, a graduate of the choir. Its text is by Hannah Szenes (1921-1944), a young woman who assisted in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz and who was eventually tried and executed. The song was sung by the Academy Chamber Choir at Dachau two years ago. In a lighter vein, Tami Kleinhaus’s spiffy, bluesy, joyful arrangement of Yoni Rechter’s “Atur Mitzchech” (Your forehead is ornamented), then Menachem Wiesenberg’s jagged, densely textured, full-on dissonant arrangement of Yohanan Zarai’s “Vayiven Uziyahu” (And Uziyahu built) (Chronicles II, 26:9-10), a daring and interesting musical gesture on the part of the arranger and a real feat on the part of the singers!
Yehezkel Braun was born in Germany in 1922. His family moved to Mandate Palestine when he was two, where he grew up surrounded by local traditional music that was later to leave a profound influence on him as a composer. He was deeply interested in Jewish melody and Gregorian chant. Yehezkel Braun died on August 27th 2014, the very day of the Academy concert. For all present, it was especially meaningful to hear his “Hem Amru” (They said) from the Sayings of the Fathers. A work written in 2005, this is a small musical gem, one of the many by Yehezkel Braun. We were well entertained by the piece, as by the soloists, as the singers enunciated the verses articulately, presenting the many shades of wisdom and meaning of each verse.
Professor Sperber brings solo voices together to form a fine choral blend. Throughout the evening, the students performed many solos within the works. Under Stanley Sperber’s guidance, the Academy Chamber Choir excels in precision and fine intonation, in the performing of different styles and in warmth of sound resulting from good teamwork and enjoyment.