Judicial Review # 6: “Divine Sparks” (Boston Jewish Music Festival Concert at Berklee): How Hot a Flame?
What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture. This is our sixth session, this time a discussion about the concert “Divine Sparks,” a provocative attempt to explore how Jewish cantorial music and other kinds of religious song can spark musical improvisation and spiritual experiences.
By Steve Elman.
In accepting our editor’s challenge to construct a Judicial Review, I looked for an artistic event that would allow a group of seasoned listeners to focus on an adventurous program and perhaps grapple with some underlying aesthetic issues. I hoped that this would be as much of a stretch for me as it might be for each of them.
Serendipitously, the Boston Jewish Music Festival offered a concert on March 12 at the Berklee Performance Center that had the potential I was looking for—and it offered the chance to deal with some interesting cultural questions as well. I was greatly assisted by Joey Baron, one of the directors of the Festival, and by Frank London, the artistic director of the concert.
Here is the pre-performance description of the concert, taken from the Boston Jewish Music Festival program:
Divine Sparks – Music to Ignite Your Soul: A Concert of Kavanah
[Kavanah may be understood as “concentration” or “intention,” that is, an appropriate mindset, often applied to the state of mind for prayer, but applicable to other activities as well.]
World-class singers and musicians use chazones [Jewish cantorial music] and [other] religious song as the springboard for musical improvisation and spiritual expression. With an all-star ensemble led by Frank London of The Klezmatics on trumpet, Anthony Coleman on keyboards, 26-year-old Orthodox cantorial sensation Yaakov Lemmer, and Moroccan Cantor / Oudist Aaron Bensoussan. The program will also feature local cantors Gastón Bogomolni and Elias Rosemberg, and Hebrew College rabbinical student Jessica Kate Meyer.
This concert was fascinating on its face: music strongly identified with Jewish religious traditions sung by five highly-respected cantors, supported by an ensemble of musicians who could introduce improvisational elements from the jazz tradition without doing harm to the religious intent.
A word or two about the aesthetic issues: I have long been fascinated by the clichéd characterization of music as “the universal language.” In my experience, it is no such thing, but I welcomed this chance to encounter music from a tradition I do not know and find out how well it spoke to me and to the other members of the panel. Of course, we are all culturally bound to some extent, but I was hoping for insight into an essential question: Can profound emotion and deep meaning be conveyed if a listener is unfamiliar with the musical traditions involved? I also hoped for some insight into what might be considered the opposite number of that question: How does an unconventional interpretation of a tradition sit with people who know that tradition well?
(From Frank London’s program notes: “A great cantorial performance has this sound, this voice. It’s the universal voice, it’s spiritual, it’s passion, it’s the sound of all humanity.”)
The members of the panel were guided to some extent by my thinking, but they also ranged quite far away from those issues. I think you’ll find their reactions well worth reading, even if you have no cantorial touchstones residing in your mind’s ear
An editorial note: Since there are no standardized English transliterations of Hebrew and Yiddish words—even among our reviewers—I’ve attempted to bring usage within this review into some kind of harmony. If any of our readers find a discord, I take all the blame.
- Introduction by Hankus Netsky.
- Details of the Concert by Steve Elman.
- Review by Vijaya Sundaram.
- Review by John Bradshaw.
- Review by Leonard Rosen.
- Review by Hankus Netsky.
- Review by Steve Elman.
- Response by Frank London.
- Summary by Bill Marx.
To begin, I asked one of the reviewers, Hankus Netsky, who has a deep familiarity with the repertoire performed, to give readers a brief introduction.
The repertoire in the concert fell into three categories:
• Composed music from the “Golden Age of Cantorial Recordings” (basically 1915–1940);
• Hassidic nigunim (melodies) composed at various times over the past 250 years, representing the Jewish equivalent of Sufi Islam or Christian Gospel, that is, more or less the populist wing of spiritual music; and
• Moroccan/Sephardic-style settings of the liturgy, some of which were original compositions by Aaron Bensoussan.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the cantorial pieces I refer to above were performed widely by superstar cantors who attracted massive crowds to hear them, both in the context of worship and performance. One of the best-known of these cantors was Yossele Rosenblatt, who performed in religious settings and also on the Keith Vaudeville circuit.
However (alas) in those days Jewish education was very different. Virtually everyone learned the liturgy in Hebrew and Aramaic, pronounced with a strong, Eastern-European accent. After the Holocaust (1938–1945), the majority of rabbis and Jewish educators (with the exception of traditional Orthodox ones) changed curricula so that they emphasized a connection to Israel as the Jewish homeland. To them, eastern Europe represented a past that had no future, even though it was the heritage of well over 90 percent of American Jews by that time. They also wanted services to favor only “participatory” music, disregarding the possible effects of feeling spirituality through
Cantorial music became like a relic, something that reminded people of the past but wasn’t widely understood . . . and the performance of these songs was also tainted by Conservative and Reform cantors trained to perform them with Contemporary Ivrit (standardized Israeli) Hebrew accents—imagine, if you will, the Delta blues as sung by Ted Koppel or Dan Rather.
As for the second category of songs, Hassidic nigunim have survived to the present, and, mostly due to the efforts of guitar-playing composer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 1960s, they actually became more widely known than they had been in the early part of the century. They have consistently served as a buffer to the bland, folk-mass-inspired stuff that took over much of Reform liturgy in the 1970s, mostly because congregations could sing them without knowing much Hebrew at all.
The third category, Sephardic Moroccan music, is alive and well and has become more mainstream in the US, because of its accessibility and its exoticism (think of the cross-cultural popularity of Pakistani qawwali virtuoso Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as a parallel example).
In our generation all of these musics are having a Renaissance, thus Frank’s project.
Hankus Netsky is Chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory. He teaches improvisation and Jewish music. He is a multi-instrumentalist (primarily known as a skilled clarinetist/saxophonist) and composer. He also has a voluminous knowledge of music in many traditions. He is one of the godfathers of the Klezmer revival, a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and an inspiration to at least two generations of Conservatory students.
Majority Opinion: All of the judges found the concert ambitious and fascinating, a valuable step in expanding the creative and cultural boundaries of “Jewish music.” The cantors were generally admired, with the recognition that they sang with “great devotion, spiritual power, and a proud exuberance.”
Minority/Dissenting Opinion: For some on the panel, not knowing the cantorial tradition or the language proved to be a considerable handicap. And the while the music and playing provided enjoyment and compelling emotional moments, the spiritual power of the evening was questioned—this reaction was summed up by one of the judges: “the concert, for me, showed some aesthetic sparks, but none of the Divine variety. ”
— Bill Marx, Editor, The Arts Fuse
Friday, March 11th was the day of the Japanese tsunami. Saturday, March 12th was my birthday and the end of a long, exhausting week. Grades were due the next week, and I was gearing up for parent conferences as well. Sleep? Three and a half hours on Wednesday night, one and a half on Thursday night, and about six and a half on Friday night. I yearned for sleep as one might yearn for a lover. The “ravell’d sleeve of care” remained ravell’d.
Thus it was that I awoke on my birthday somewhat storm-tossed, battle-weary, and brain-dead. And yet, I was happy. My family was about me, my home was intact, there was a sense of plenty that seemed almost too good to be true. Somewhere in the world, chaos, heartbreak, loss, and unendurable conditions raged, while here I lived, secure for the nonce, in the loving embrace of family and home. My husband, daughter, and I celebrated in a modest and sweet way. The mood of gloom lifted, if only for a while. A gentle wind from a distant shore wafted my way.
In the evening, music awaited, promising something new and beautiful, something spiritual, life-affirming. “Divine Sparks,” whispered the brochure, “music to ignite your soul.”
We had no idea about what to expect. I had heard of Frank London (a former band-mate of my husband Warren Senders) and knew that he did klezmer music, but we were informed that this wasn’t going to be klezmer per se, but something we might, perhaps, be hearing for the first time. There were to be no preconceptions. So, we went in with either only a few or none. The concert brochure suggested that that would be cantorial music, but the composition of the “backup” band suggested a fusion of different musical worlds.
It was beautiful. It was haunting. It was surprising. It was entertaining. It was soulful. It was rollicking. It was even humorous at times. It was eclectic, exquisite, indescribable.
There. The usual adjectives are out of the way, at least for the time being.
It was all that and more. The programming reflected a sort of coming together of disparate talents. Five cantors— oud-player and vocalist Aaron Bensoussan from Morocco, Gastón Bogomolni from Argentina (now in Needham), Elias Rosemberg, also from Argentina (now in Boston), youthful Yaakov “Yanky” Lemmer, and Jessica Kate Meyer, both from the United States, took turns coming on to the stage and rendering songs from texts that were a mystery to me, a goy.
At first I found it hard to focus internally on the music, because I didn’t know the words. That is crucial, I think, to fully appreciate what they were singing about, this being a concert of kavanah. I knew enough to understand that the cantors on stage were singing songs whose words had deep meaning, spiritual intention, and attentiveness to the divine spirit. I just didn’t know what those words were. And there they shimmered, those songs, while all around them arose shining coils of music, arising out of jazz improvisation, aiming to evoke the same spirituality. Not knowing ANYTHING about this aspect of the evening’s performance, I felt a little unequal to the task of writing about it.
However, as a musician myself, I found myself responding to what I understood best: the music—even if it wasn’t that familiar to me.
The music was very satisfying. I loved hearing Mr. London’s singing trumpet. It rang out at times, it crooned at other times, and all the time, it embraced the singers’ voices without overpowering them. The skillfulness of the orchestration, with the rise and fall of dynamic range and the insistent, almost-Indian drone quality of some of the opening notes for songs made for very rewarding listening.
Mr. Syd Smart played very thoughtful and sensitive accompaniment on conga and djembe; guitarist Eyal Maoz and bassist Tal Gamlieli provided some very moody and lovely lines that wove in and out of the singers’ voices; the pianist/keyboardist (Anthony Coleman) and drummer (Richie Barshay) created a multi-faceted soundscape against which the songs built their spiritual meaning.
The pieces that were deliberately a-tempo, and those that were set to quick tempos broke up what might have become a monotonously predictable set. The cantors’ smooth entries and exits (mostly seamless, towards the end occasionally confused) worked out quite well. There were rollicking moments when the audience sang along with the performers and clapped in time. There were others where an attentive silence was its own compliment. I enjoyed it but did find myself wanting more of one or another performer for a longer time rather than the quick entry and exit of one performer after another.
At different times, I warmed to different aspects of the five vocalists and their songs. I was spiritually moved by Aaron Bensoussan. He wasn’t “dreamy” or “spiritual” in the obvious way, but there was an uplifting, joyful quality to his singing that lifted my spirits and bore me away to happy realms. He was somehow evocative of an older time and older, more rugged style. His laughing, ecstatic singing moved me. His joy in singing, in playing the oud, in celebrating the divine as well as the temporal planes, was contagious. That, to me, is somehow very spiritual. I heard a similar but somewhat declarative quality in Mr. Lemmer’s voice, which was extraordinarily compelling and always seemed to hold the audience captive.
In a different way, the soulfulness of cheerful, yet passionate Gastón Bogomolni and the shy, but bold operatic tenor voice of Elias Rosemberg balanced the exuberance of Mr. Bensoussan and Mr. Lemmer.
Jessica Kate Meyer’s voice was exquisitely tuneful, beautifully modulated, and finely controlled. She, too, was soulful, and her clear, high singing voice shone like a gem set against the male voices.
Listening to them sing, I thought about what the words “spirituality” and “soulfulness” mean to me. If I were to describe them, I would describe spirituality as having wings and soulfulness as having gills. Neither is earthbound. Both seek the ineffable.
That’s what the music was: Ineffable.
We went home, pleasantly satiated. That night, sleep came easily. The ravell’d sleeve of care was knitted. Bad news receded, at least for that night. Spiritually beautiful music creates its own waves, and those are only ones we can ride, to seek those distant shores, shining in the distance.
Vijaya Sundaram is a singer, composer, and lyricist who also performs instrumentally on guitar and tamboura. She trained in Hindustani vocal and instrumental music for many years in India, where she met her husband, composer-singer Warren Senders. She is a member of his East-West fusion group Antigravity and also a member of the Agbekor Society. She brings an equal level of passion and commitment to her “day job” as a middle-school teacher in Winchester.
The program notes for the concert, specifically, the lack of any material on what was to be performed other than the performers’ biographical notes, provided my first clue that this was not going to be like other concerts of sacred music I’ve attended.
The concert, for me, showed some aesthetic sparks but none of the Divine variety. This may be owing to the religious tradition in which I was brought up or the one where I ended up.
I have performed in many churches in many countries, of many different (but all Christian) religious traditions. I don’t need a particularly holy setting to be moved spiritually, and it may be that I have some bias against jazz as a medium for devotional expression (apologies to St. John Coltrane’s African Orthodox Church), but I do need something at least mildly transcendent for that purpose. Aside from the voice of Yaakov Lemmer on some of the songs, I heard nothing transcendent on this evening.
For me, one thing that definitely detracted from any spiritual involvement was the use of microphones for the singers. I often listen to live sacred music, but outside of the Duomo in Florence (where, owing to the placement of musicians no one could hear you as a solo performer without reinforcement), before this evening I never heard any that relied on amplification. I’m uneasy passing judgment on voices that have passed through microphones, but, with that caveat, the voices of all the cantors seemed very good.
In the sacred music that I’m familiar with, improvisation occurs fairly seldom and even then, oxymoronically, it tends to be arranged beforehand, occurring in the rare cadenza. (So rare are these that, in 40 years of performing and concertgoing, I’ve heard only one.) In these settings, dynamics and tempi tend to be the main occasions for improvisation.
Ornamentation is common in Christian sacred music but not to anywhere near the extent I heard here. At times it seemed that there was nothing but ornamentation. I heard very little in the entire concert that sounded to me like a melody.
My limited experience of Jewish cantorial singing is that it tends to be unaccompanied. It may be that in that circumstance, which most singers I know respect and even fear, ornamentation can provide a harmonic framework, defining a shadow “accompaniment.”
Aesthetically, I found the playing of the instrumental ensemble quite impressive. I don’t know much about klezmer music, but what I’ve heard tends to have a reed instrument in the ensemble. In London’s group, his own extremely skillfully subdued playing on the trumpet seemed to substitute rather successfully.
John Bradshaw is an active member of Boston’s singing community. He works regularly in Christian liturgical contexts and describes his range as “between baritone and tenor.” He has performed with the Concordia Ensemble, Sixteen Singers, the De Varonistas, the Wellesley Collegium, the First Parish Choir (Weston), and the choir of Pleasant Street Congregational Church (Arlington), among others.
According to the program notes, the artists wanted to bring classical cantorial music mixed with standard songs from the liturgy—and through these create a “focus . . . on spirituality”—a spiritual experience “for the singers and musicians and the audience.”
The musicians and singers were expert and joyful in their presentation of cantorial music and songs from the liturgy. Their playing was nuanced, assured, and fervent—and they delivered on their promise, with cantorial standards that featured four accomplished chassans (singers). As for whether or not, or the extent to which, they created a sacred space in the theater with their music—this is a personal matter. I was not engaged spiritually, but I can readily imagine others were.
Emotionally, spiritually, was I involved in the music? Yes and no—but first a disclaimer: Jewish cantorial and liturgical music was the music of my youth—and not my favorite music. Like Frank London, I ran from the cantorial music “to my psychedelic rock and roll records.” Unlike London, I never made my way back.
I grew up attending synagogue and listening to cantors pray in their plaintive, pleading voices. At Berklee on March 12, the musicians and singers faithfully re-created my earlier musical experiences in synagogue. But my old laments with the music bubbled to the surface as I listened. As I child I sometimes thought the cantors were being showy with their weepy trills—as if the congregation were an audience. There’s a difference: an audience comes to listen to a performance, and the focus is on the performer. We applaud the performer. A congregation comes to pray, to be near the divine; the focus is on the congregant’s prayerful experience, not the beautiful singing of the cantor, which is a conduit: the cantor’s singing, per se, does not matter. The cantor oughtn’t call attention to himself or herself because the cantor is a pathway along which the congregant forges an experience with the ineffable. We thank the cantor in a spiritual setting for helping us to get there (nearer to the divine). We do not applaud.
When I heard these same plaintive trills at the concert, the old confusion returned—and was, in fact, magnified. Music I recalled from a sacred setting that too often became performance (cantors in synagogue trilling too long and saying, in effect, “Look at me!”) was presented at Berklee as a performance in a performance setting where it was appropriate and expected for the audience (not a congregation now) to listen to these same trills and applaud. The cantors at Berklee, with brilliant, clear voices that could plead and trill—so true to the tradition!—appeared on the stage as performers. As performers they were immensely talented. But they did not create for me a spiritual experience precisely because they were performers.
So I did not have a spiritual experience—but this had nothing to do with the ability of the musicians and singers, who were excellent. My question had more to do with the intentions of the programming and the categorical puzzle it created for me. Had I been asked simply to come listen and enjoy a Jewish cultural experience, I would have had no difficulties with the evening. The evening delivered! But the expectation of a spiritual experience created a puzzle. What was happening? Cantor as conduit, cantor as performer/listener as prayerful supplicant to the divine, listener as audience member (who applauds) in a performance setting?
The categorical puzzle I wrestled with would have existed for any presentation of sacred music in a performance setting whatever the tradition. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the musical experience at Berklee.
As a postscript, when I listen to music alone, I often do go to a spiritual place. When I listen alone, I know people made the music, but they disappear when I’m alone—just as an author disappears when I’m reading a good story: it’s the words and me, the art and me, alone. Music and other forms of art can and often do move me spiritually.
This is complicated. It’s possible that if I listened to cantorial music alone—perhaps a recording of these same performers from this same evening!—I could have had a spiritual experience. But sitting there at Berklee, I carried too much baggage. I couldn’t let it go.
Intellectually, how did I respond? Bump—ba-ba-bump-pah! Bump—ba-ba-bump-pah! The beat repeated itself through the night, across many songs—giving the music a distinctive eastern European drive. Before this evening, I did not appreciate the Middle Eastern and (perhaps) Indian influences on Jewish music. I found this blending of traditions exciting.
Memorable moments? Yes! Frank London’s trumpet playing is spectacular. He moved effortlessly from traditional motifs to jazzy riffs; he held back and played muted accompaniments when the music called for it, then let loose with brassy, crisp, bright flourishes—bringing in Latin elements at times. Terrific!
I also thoroughly enjoyed the music outside the cantorial repertoire—“ Eliyahu Hanovi” and “L’cha Dodi.” The first is sung at the Passover table, and the second is sung by the entire congregation (not just the cantor) at Friday night services, welcoming the Sabbath. Both tunes were rousing and far more engaging to me than the cantorial pieces, because these are songs of the people (not the cantors). I found them joyous and full of energy. These were the evening’s highlights for me.
I also found the solos of Jessica Kate Meyer moving. She has a haunting, plaintive voice. Yaakov Lemmer’s voice is powerful, clear, and pure, even if I did not engage, particularly, with the music.
These performers obviously knew their disciplines, and they performed with grace and talent. All this was in evidence at the concert, and I am glad to have attended. The criticisms I’ve expressed have to do with my baggage, not their music.
“Divine Sparks” was an enjoyable, often exciting evening. Those who came to hear cantorial music played expertly, with passion, got exactly what they wanted. Good for them—and the musicians. I missed out on the spiritual experience, but I still enjoyed myself.
Leonard Rosen is a best-selling, non-fiction author who lives in Brookline. He has written op-eds for The Boston Globe and essays for National Public Radio. His first work of fiction, All Cry Chaos, an intellectual thriller introducing veteran Interpol agent Henri Poincaré, has just been published. His non-fiction books include The Academic Writer’s Handbook and Discovery and Commitment: A Handbook for College Writers. He is co-author (with Laurence Behrens) of Writing and Reading across the Curriculum and The Allyn & Bacon Handbook.
For me the “Divine Sparks” concert was a welcome event that represented a bit of movement on a continuum that has a long way to go. Cantorial music is still largely a mystery to the vast, young audience that has been gravitating toward exploring Eastern European, Jewish roots music since the late 1970s (I guess even I was young when that started)—and with virtually no translations, notes, or contextualization, it seemed like, with a few notable exceptions, no one at this concert was particularly trying to de-mystify anything.
On the contrary, it seemed like Frank London’s intention might have been to present chazones (cantorial music) as exotica, a modal music from an ancient tradition that can be approached in a variety of ways since its actual context has been virtually forgotten—hey, it worked for klezmer, no? On the other hand, the older members of the audience probably heard it as the music of their youth. For many of them, it was undoubtedly a stretch to imagine why anyone would want to place it in the context of drone-based world-music paired with freeish jazz; after all, its proper domain would be a more heymish [congenial] environment than that . . .
While the cantors who performed in the concert were all immaculately prepared, only a few of them (notably Aaron Bensoussan and Yaakov Lemmer) really found a meeting place in which to interact with their accompanists, no accident really, since only the two of them had ever worked with Frank’s group before.
For this, I would only partially blame the apparent lack of rehearsal time and the inclusion of way too much material. Cantorial music is a text-based art music that relies heavily on tone-painting, and in order to really make the concert work, the accompanists would have had to cram in some serious hours of text study. Even the Israeli accompanists, whom one would think might be able to follow the Hebrew and Aramaic (but not the Yiddish), mostly only seemed able to respond to musical cues rather than those coming from the texts.
Still, the strongest moments were the ones in which such cues were taken. Highlights for me included Jessica Kate Meyer’s interpretation of “Rozo D’shabos” (“The Glow of the Sabbath”) where the band members (notably guitarist Eyal Maoz, who unfortunately seemed challenged to find the appropriate harmonies in places) attempted to match the intention of the prayer with an especially rich helping of reverb. Ms. Meyer truly brought the audience with her on a journey to the meeting place between God and Israel and lovers and intimacy and Friday evening and timelessness, conjured up through Pinchik’s extraordinarily effective musical gestures.
My very favorite moment of all happened during the final selection, “Atoh Khonen” (from the daily morning prayers, a text that basically says “God gave you a brain . . . now use it!”). Here we got to experience a true meeting point between Aaron Bensoussan’s Sephardic Moroccan tradition (actual North African makam-base modality) and Yaakov Lemmer’s nusakh (loosely formulated Jewish mode)-based Rumenishe dreydlekh (Romanian licks)—and somehow, they were completely compatible with each other.
Lemmer was also spellbinding in his virtually solo presentation of “Moron D’Vishmayo.”
Bensoussan took matters into his own hands several times during the evening . . . and being his own accompanist on oud, frame drum, and dumbek, he was uniquely suited to do so (although Gastón Bogomolni should certainly get honorable mention for his work on guitarron and dumbek). Bensoussan brought his music right to the audience, not really depending on the ensemble at all, and the results were palpable.
I do want to be sure to mention Anthony Coleman, whose accompaniment on certain pieces showed him to the kind of thinking musician you’d want with you in any situation where the audience is bound to be listening for things to think about too . . . and then, when the set calls for a pulsing groove, he’s also got that covered.
And Frank London’s high register was another effective color, particularly on “Sheyibone Bais Hamikdash” (“The One Who Will Rebuild the Temple”), the final encore, a tune that inspired the group to truly rock out.
What I did not hear in the course of the evening was any attempt for the group to meet Cantor Elias Rosemberg on his aesthetic level (coming much more from bel canto) particularly on Rosenblatt’s “Hamavdil” (the prayer that marks the end of the Sabbath) or the Schlossberg “Retsei” (“Accept Your People and their Prayers”). These are unique compositions that I believe deserved more attention to detail on the part of the group. I also found myself wondering why the instrumentalists (with the exception of Coleman and bassist Tal Gamlieli) did so little with the rich musical and rhythmic signifiers of Lemmer’s chazones, instead substituting African-based grooves at every turn.
Still, all of the cantors sang with great devotion, spiritual power, and a proud exuberance. A jam session is only a starting place—and sometimes it can be the start of something big. I look forward to hearing more from this ambitious creative project in the years to come.
I continue to wonder how permeable the membrane is between what is typed as “Jewish music” and the mainstream in our society. It’s clear to me that there is a whole spectrum of culturally coherent music available to the devout and casual Jew—folk to classical, children’s songs to adult pop, old school and new school, Israeli and non-Israeli, inside and outside the temple. For active congregations, it may seem as though there is a cornucopia of resources for anyone with even a casual interest. But for listeners who are not Jewish, it’s an undiscovered country, a forest of trees falling without a goyish sound.
Cast your mind back over your own musical history. How many examples can you cite of music evocative of the Jewish tradition that has crossed over, really penetrated the consciousness of mainstream America? Fiddler on the Roof, sure. The soundtrack to Exodus, maybe. What else? Anything in Yiddish? “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” I guess. Certainly not a lot of others. The only examples of true crossover music in the jazz tradition that I can recall quickly, Ziggy Elman’s freilach trumpet solos for Benny Goodman in the 1930s, were a sort of burlesque, a novelty rather than a genuine cultural bridge.
I will not speak for others, but it seems to me that the desire for engagement between Jewish and gentile musical traditions has sprung almost exclusively from the Jewish side. In the jazz world, there’s been plenty of cross-cultural experimentation, but the number of goy-to-Jew overtures there seems almost nonexistent. Paul Horn went to India to study and record inside the Taj Mahal—not to the Wailing Wall to meditate and play. Duke Ellington wrote “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” and “The Far East Suite” but no “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” In all those tunes evoking the flavor of the Levant and the Middle East—“Night in Tunisia,” “Daahoud,” etc., etc.—there’s no obvious sense of the Jewish component. Even songs that evoke the Old Testament—“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and all the rest—come through black gospel rather than directly from Judaism.
In our own time, downtown czar John Zorn set aside a large slice of his career for music drawing on his Jewish roots. He’s made a flock of records with his group Masada, featuring Dave Douglas, with the titles of the releases corresponding to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He’s even given his record label a Hebrew name (tzadzik, “righteous one”).
Frank London and Anthony Coleman, both musicians I admire greatly and both of whom have worked with Zorn, have also devoted substantial pieces of their career to this tradition.
But for some reason, before March 12, I had not taken up their invitations. The sole examples of music from the Jewish tradition with which I have engaged deeply came to me through the back door, so to speak. I came to know Steve Reich’s “Tehillim” because I admired his other music and felt that anything so unusual as Hebrew psalm texts in minimalist dress had to be worth a listen—and I was thrilled to be so richly rewarded. I came to Betty Olivero’s “Neharót Neharót” because of my abiding admiration for violist Kim Kashkashian—anything she would choose to record had to be interesting, and so it proved to be.
I cite all of this as a way of outlining the challenges I see facing Joey Baron, Jim Ball, and the others associated with the Boston Jewish Music Festival who want to take their event to the next level. Clearly, the substantial crowd that arrived at the Berklee Performance Center on March 12 was composed primarily of people who knew about “Divine Sparks” from publicity distributed through their temples. This is a completely logical marketing approach for the festival, but one that by its very nature limits the audience. I do not remember seeing any more than a few passing references to the Festival in the Globe or the Phoenix, and this may have contributed to the fact that the house was not quite half full. There was room for many more ears.
In fact, the only reason I knew of the concert was that I was specifically looking for something unusual for this Judicial Review project, and I had to dig deep into Berklee’s site before I found it. From their remarks onstage, it seems that Baron and Ball are clearly interested in building bridges from the Jewish community to others. But how can they build bridges without logical places to cross the river?
Perhaps the problem isn’t on the Jewish side, although more ecumenical program notes for this concert could have been useful in getting the bridge-building underway. More fundamentally, maybe what needs to happen is a clearing of the forest on the other bank.
For a lot of us, the very idea of “Jewish music” is somehow charged in a way that “Scottish music” or “Spanish music” are not—although each of the three traditions has a strong streak of modality, and when stripped of cultural context, they all seem to hark back to some ancient, Indo-European chant form. At the very least, we non-Jews have to begin to be receptive to the idea that we will be welcome at a Boston Jewish Music Festival concert, and that we will find our ways into the music the same ways we find our ways into other musics not immediately part of our lives.
I can’t try to explain why this is without a long digression into the roots of anti-Semitism, but there’s something a little ugly about the way this music is ghettoized (pun intended, absolutely), even for me, in a subconscious way. So, obviously, there’s work to do. I started mine on March 12.
“Divine Sparks” changed my way of thinking about “Jewish music,” whatever it may be. Regrettably, I failed to perceive much of the emotional impact of the music because I could not understand the words being sung. In addition, the harmonic universe here has its limits; it took me about 30 minutes to begin to grasp the different emotional weights of the songs.
But on a level of musical technique, I had no doubts. All the singers showed skill and power on the highest level, and two were unforgettable. From Yaakov Lemmer, I heard singing that is easily the equal of the best I’ve ever heard—he is an almost frighteningly gifted musician, with glorious control of his dynamics. Jessica Kate Meyer is just at the beginning of her singing career, so we should have much great music ahead of us; her beautiful, crystalline tone, her command of pitch and drama, especially on “Rozo d’Shabos”—these were very special.
If the other three cantors were not so much to my liking, I hope that my comments will not be construed as faint praise; Lemmer and Meyer were so good that almost anyone would have been in their shadows. I could have heard much more of Aaron Bensoussan’s oud playing, and I enjoyed the warmth and humanity of his approach to song. Gastón Bogomolni is obviously a genial personality, and his approach reflected his joie de vivre. Elias Rosemberg, the only baritone on stage, has a beautiful instrument, but I felt that he was a bit more reserved than the others; this may have been a reflection of the repertoire he was asked to sing.
I was very grateful for Frank London’s presence on the stand. Like so many of the young musicians I have watched mature in this community, he is now secure in a very distinctive approach. He showed complete commitment to the goal of a cross-cultural conversation, and I think he achieved a good part of that goal. His own solos and obbligati were simultaneously personal and impeccably played—that is, he not only has a story to tell, but he tells it with diction that anyone can admire. And his use of piccolo trumpet on “Tal,” matching Lemmer’s vocal intensity with some beautiful high-register stuff, was one of the high points for me.
Anthony Coleman is a musician deserving of much more recognition. Given the opportunity to push the music a bit, he enriched the textures with great ingenuity. His piano work accompanying four of the cantors on “Breslover L’cha Dodi” turned up the heat impressively, and on the 6/8 “Avinu Malkeynu,” he brought the rhythm section into McCoy Tyner territory—a place that I would have liked him to visit earlier and more often.
The rest of the band had bright moments throughout, although they all were clearly keeping their individual approaches in line with London’s vision for the evening. Having Eyal Maoz adopt a hard-edged sound on electric guitar was a nice nod to modernism, and bringing the venerable Boston drummer Syd Smart on stage to play djembe was a generous gesture to the traditions of jazz in the city. I enjoyed Tal Gamlieli’s bass work more with every tune; he has both command and grace on his instrument. I think that Richie Barshay rose to a particularly difficult role; he could not use the full arsenal of jazz drumming technique and hold the music together properly, so he balanced klezmer techniques with jazz in a way that was admirable.
There is no neat way to sum everything up. Some moments were a bit messy—entrances not quite where they should have been, one cantor coming on stage when another was expected, the ensemble not quite as firm as it should have been in a few spots. But the good will on stage and the mutual respect of all the musicians for each other were things that even a gentile could feel.
Steve Elman writes regularly on jazz for The Arts Fuse. His 33 years in public radio included 10 years as a jazz host, five years as a classical host, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, and 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR. He was jazz and popular music editor of the Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.
He is the co-author of Burning Up the Air (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), which chronicles the first 50 years of talk radio through the life of talk-show pioneer Jerry Williams. He is a member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
The music at suburban reform Temple Beth Elohim on Long Island that I heard when a child was a far cry from the profoundly moving sounds of the golden age of cantorial music. There was little that interested me in Jewish music, let alone anything that predicted that I would spend so many years working with it. The first cantorial recording that truly had a profound impact on me—Alter Karniol’s “Avinu Malkeynu,” given to me by Hankus Netsky—led me to question why cantorial performances did not always convey that degree of power or impact. My guide in exploring this question has been Abraham Joshua Heschel’s amazing essay, “On the Task of the Cantor.”
I tried to address this in the concert. Today’s standard cantorial concert is more about the singer and his (generally, the performers are men) vocal dexterity than about spirituality, yet true religious singing requires a selflessness and sublimation of ego that is diametrically opposed to the “prima donna” ethos prevalent in concert soloists. The typical cantorial concert repertoire will include a potpourri of Yiddish songs, opera excerpts, Israeli melodies, Broadway hits, some folky-popular para-liturgical music (Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman at best), and a few actual pieces of cantorial music. Cantors are trotted out to do their solo performances and then brought together for the big finale. The form and content are that of a variety show. This is antithetical to the essence of chazzanut, reducing the meaning and impact of these sacred works. The structure of the concert says that there is no difference between portraying the Phantom of the Opera and baring your soul before the divine. Just as my first direct aesthetic impact on the klezmer revival with The Klezmatics was based more on what we didn’t do—nostalgia, kitsch, shtick—than what we did, my first move was to focus the repertoire on solely sacred music.
Another issue is that of the accompaniment. I discuss this further in one of my responses below, but let me sum up by saying that the kavanah, the spiritual/musical/aesthetic focus of the accompanying musicians, must be as intent as that of the religious singer. There are a number of ways of achieving this. I have chosen to give the musicians general instructions and parameters but to allow a great deal of improvisation. In this way they must be fully present, in the moment, concentrating on, reacting to, and even provoking the soloist. This level of engaged interaction with the singer hopefully enhances and expands upon the overall affect of the performance and gives the audience a model to mirror in their concentration.
Add to this the question of Timothy Leary’s “set and setting.” We live in a polarized world where we are comfortable going to church for a spiritual experience and to a concert hall for entertainment or an aesthetic experience but have difficulty finding either in the “wrong” setting. The best architects of both recognize the importance of spirituality in aesthetics and of aesthetics in spirituality.
CONCERT AS TRANSCENDENTAL EXPERIENCE
A word about expectations: they can be deadly. If I go to a movie or a restaurant that has been praised to the roof, then my experience is tainted, and usually in a negative way. When I go in with low or no expectations, more often my reaction is “that was great . . . I didn’t expect it at all . . .”
A number of the reviewers said that they did not have the transcendent experience that the concert promised. Leonard Rosen said it most succinctly: “Had I been asked simply to come listen and enjoy a Jewish cultural experience, I would have had no difficulties with the evening. The evening delivered! But the expectation of a spiritual experience created a puzzle. What was happening?”
It is already challenging to bridge the secular/sacred space gap and its ensuing frisson. I wonder if the audience and the reviewers here were told they were simply going to a concert of Jewish world music and jazz and then heard our performance, might they have said something like, “I went in expecting to hear world music fusion, but was surprised to find that it seemed closer to a religious service than a concert . . .”? Did the labeling of the concert as an attempt to bring a spiritual experience into a concert setting with its attendant expectations actually work as an impediment to the experience? This warrants closer inspection for future events. It must be noted that the opposite has been posited. Certain studies on religious rituals and their efficacy (see Gilbert Rouget’s “Music and Trance” or descriptions of the Elysian mysteries) suggest that the expectation of a transcendent experience—whether possession by a loa at a Haitian Vodun ritual or that one will experience what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls Radical Amazement in the synagogue service—can increase the odds of it occurring.
A number of the writers mentioned the issue of understanding the texts. I am of two minds on this. On one hand, textual understanding truly enhances the experience—helping to appreciate the text-painting that Hankus Netsky describes, and also to get fully engaged in the meaning of the words, as all the writers allude to.
However, I have listened to songs from around the world for years and have learned to appreciate singer, song, and the gestalt of a performance without understanding the words. When I watch and listen to Oum Kalthoum or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it is apparent how totally engaged they are in the text. I am carried along in their intent and often ecstatic expression. Perhaps this is related to the Hasidic teaching that, although we can appreciate words and music together, we gain a deeper, purer, more direct experience of either element—text or music—when heard alone. By not understanding and thereby focusing on the meaning of the words, I am not distracted and can get more into the voice as music. And, occasionally, understanding the text has ruined and deflated the experience. Case in point: having a great time dancing into a frenzy in a Roxbury merengue club to a burning merengue track, “El Africano,” then discovering that although it was a huge hit at the time, its text was overtly racist and sexual.
The dialectical questions posed by reviewer Leonard Rosen are the very ones in which I have been trying to engage in for many years. What makes for a successful spiritual concert? Do we judge it by musical or by another set of criteria? Is the quality of the performance more or less important than the effect it has on the audience or on the performer him or herself? Does the very nature of a concert, with active performers on a stage and passive listeners in chairs, work in opposition to the ritual aspect of a spiritual ceremony? Is it possible to take musical elements of a ritual out of context and have them maintain their spiritual function?
I cannot express the problematic of this sort of event any better than he does. “There’s a difference: an audience comes to listen to a performance, and the focus is on the performer. We applaud the performer. A congregation comes to pray, to be near the divine; the focus is on the congregant’s prayerful experience, not the beautiful singing of the cantor, which is a conduit: the cantor’s singing, per se, does not matter. The cantor oughtn’t call attention to himself or herself because the cantor is a pathway along which the congregant forges an experience with the ineffable. We thank the cantor in a spiritual setting for helping us to get there (nearer to the divine). We do not applaud.”
Aware of this imprecation before it was made, I tried to create a quasi-Buddhist, dramaturgical aesthetic. The first segment of the concert, lasting about half an hour, was designed as a seamless flow where each of the singers was introduced to the audience (without any spoken introductions), singing songs that intentionally did not have dramatic endings. There are many ways of getting an audience to applaud—”buttons” at the end of a number, fast tempos at the end of long arhythmic pieces—and we used none of them. Applause was neither encouraged musically or dramatically nor discouraged when it occurred; sometimes the audience applauded the singers’ performances anyway.
Rosen’s comment, “an audience comes to listen to a performance, and the focus is on the performer. A congregation comes to pray, to be near the divine; the focus is on the congregant’s prayerful experience, not the beautiful singing of the cantor, which is a conduit: the cantor’s singing, per se, does not matter,” brings to mind an important moment in the history of Jewish sacred space. A little over a century ago in America, a conscious choice was made to change the architecture of the synagogue. Previously the cantor, “a pathway along which the congregant forges an experience with the ineffable,” stood amongst the congregants facing in the same direction as them, towards the holy ark of the covenant. He was one of them, his voice to God was their voice.
Now the synagogue is designed so that the cantor would stand in front of the congregation on a platform, facing them as a performer to audience. This move, which at first highlighted the virtuosity of the singing, became part of the long decline of cantorial music in the synagogue, for all the reasons expressed by the reviewer. If the goal is to reinvest cantorial music with its spiritual potency; then perhaps in order to do so one has to more directly subvert the concert performance model.
“The categorical puzzle I wrestled with would have existed for any presentation of sacred music in a performance setting, whatever the tradition.” I mentioned earlier the problematic of trying to transform a public, secular concert hall into sacred space. If my goal is for attendees to have a transformative experience, than perhaps it would be easier if performances in spaces that are more conducive to this, such as New York’s Orensanz Center, a former synagogue. When I used to live in Boston, one could hear Bach’s masses performed in a church, re-investing the works with their ritual function and essential potency.
Hankus Netsky asked “why anyone would want to place it in the context of drone-based world-music paired with freeish jazz”? The energy, concentration and sonic ontology of the cantors’ voices evokes the great saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, who each came to a place where sound and spirit merged. Is it any wonder that, in a recent New York Times interview asking what he was listening to at the moment, Ornette Coleman responded, “Yossele Rosenblatt”? One of my main problems with the presentation of cantorial music in performance is that the accompaniment has tended to draw from Western Classical musical traditions without thinking of the dialectical problems with this choice. In looking for alternatives to this, where the instrumentalists’ role was of equal intensity to the singer, I drew from musical traditions that I am familiar with that have the same intensity and focus, “drone-based world-music and free jazz”.
For the record, we had never met or worked with Cantor Lemmer before. The only previous musical interactions any of us had before were that two of us have performed with Cantor ben Soussan.
As for Netsky’s closing comment, “sometimes it can be the start of something big. I look forward to hearing more from this ambitious creative project in the years to come,” I can only say, “alevay” (it should only happen)—from his mouth to God’s ear. This concert was just one step, albeit a large one, in a long journey that I am on to try and address the questions of how to reach universal moments of transcendental spirituality through the very particular medium and language of Jewish sacred music and how to have an authentic experience of the divine in a secular space such as a concert hall.
Vijaya Sundaram’s comments humble me and make me grateful for the absolutely stellar performances by all of the singers and instrumentalists. They gave of themselves in deep, profound, and heart felt ways, generously sharing their spirits.
It is difficult to address John Bradshaw’s critiques; his contextual grounding is so different from mine and from what was presented that he was alienated instead of engaged. But I think it is important to attest and affirm that there are a multiplicity of sacred music traditions and performance styles in the world. Improvisation is a very fundamental aspect of many of them—witness Santería drumming and vocal music—and amplification is used in many Gospel churches. It is just not part of those that, as he points out, he is familiar with.
And thank you, Steve Elman, for your critical listening and thinking and the pertinent sociological and musical questions you raise.
We are grateful and indebted to Joey Baron and the Boston Jewish Music Festival for co-conceiving, arranging, organizing, and facilitating as much time as they did to try and realize this grand event.
Adapted from the program notes and from information supplied by Frank London.
By Steve Elman.
Cantor Aaron Bensoussan was born in Morocco and comes from a prominent rabbinic dynasty. He is also a virtuoso of the oud, which he played at “Divine Sparks,” accompanying himself and the other singers. He is a tenor of great warmth, combining approaches from the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions of cantorial song.
Cantor Gastón Bogomolni was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also plays the guitarron and accompanied himself and other singers on that instrument at the concert. He has held cantorial positions in Omaha, NE; Barcelona; and the Dominican Republic. He currently is cantor at Temple Ailyah in Needham and president of Tarbut Boston, an organization of people from Barcelona with particular interest in Sephardic and Hebrew culture.
Cantor Yaakov Lemmer was born and raised in Brooklyn. Although still in his twenties, he has already established himself as a lyric tenor to be reckoned with as a soloist in both religious and secular contexts. He is Chief Cantor at Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle, NY, and performs frequently as a concert artist throughout the United States and Europe. He is often referred to by a nickname that betrays his sports enthusiasms: “Yanky.”
Jessica Kate Meyer is an accomplished actress, perhaps best known for her role in the film The Pianist (2002). In the mid-2000s, she moved to Los Angeles, where she became active in the Jewish community Ikar and decided to change careers, devoting herself to rabbinical and cantorial study. She is currently a student at Hebrew College and sings with Hankus Netsky’s band Klezmer and Beyond.
Cantor Elias Rosemberg, like Gastón Bogomolni, was born in Buenos Aires. He held positions in Argentina and the New York City area before coming to New England in 2001. He is currently cantor at Temple Emmanuel in Newton and Chairman of the New England Region of the Cantors Assembly of America
Frank London was the artistic director of the concert, conducting the ensemble and playing trumpet and harmonium. He is a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and of the Klezmatics. He is based in New York City, where his personal projects include work in the various forms of Jewish music and the traditions of the brass band; he also performs frequently as a sideman in jazz and pop contexts.
Anthony Coleman played piano, organ, and harmonium. He teaches Contemporary Improvisation, Jazz Studies, and Composition at the New England Conservatory. He was associated with the blending of free music and formal composition from the beginning of his professional career in Boston, and he continued to explore these elements when he became an important player in the New York City downtown scene. He has drawn on his Jewish heritage to extend and inform a good deal of his recent music, but he has ranged far and wide, including a recent project brilliantly recreating the piano music of Jelly Roll Morton. His groups include Sephardic Tinge and the Selfhaters.
In addition to London and Coleman, the other members of the instrumental ensemble were Eyal Maoz (electric guitar), Tal Gamlieli (amplified bass), Richie Barshay (trap kit), and Yedidya Syd Smart (djembe and percussion).
The repertoire, in the order of performance, follows:
“Ono Hashem,” featuring London on trumpet
“A Dudele,” featuring Gastón Bogomolni
“Tzama Lekha Nafshi,” featuring Jessica Kate Meyer, with Aaron Bensoussan, oud
“Avinu Malkeynu,” featuring Yaakov Lemmer
“Hamavdil,” featuring Elias Rosemberg, with Aaron Bensoussan, oud
“Eliyahu Hanovi,” featuring Jessica Kate Meyer, with Aaron Bensoussan, oud
performed in medley with
“Eli Eliyahu,” featuring Aaron Bensoussan
“Breslover L’cha Dodi,” featuring Gastón Bogomolni, Elias Rosemberg,
Jessica Kate Meyer, and Aaron Bensoussan
“Faith Hora,” featuring London on trumpet
“L’cha Dodi,” featuring Aaron Bensoussan
“Rozo d’Shabos,” featuring Jessica Kate Meyer
“Eyli Ataw,” featuring Gastón Bogomolni, vocal, shofar
“Tal,” featuring Yaakov Lemmer, with London, piccolo trumpet
“Retsei,” featuring Elias Rosemberg
“Moron D’Vishmayo,” featuring Yaakov Lemmer
“Tov Lehadot,” featuring Aaron Bensoussan
“Zol Shoyn Kumen di Geulah,” featuring Jessica Kate Meyer, Gastón Bogomolni,
and Elias Rosemberg
performed in medley with:
“Ato Chonen,” featuring Yaakov Lemmer and Aaron Bensoussan
“Avinu Malkeynu,” featuring Jessica Kate Meyer, Gastón Bogomolni,
and Elias Rosemberg
“Sheyibone Bais Hamikdash,” featuring Yaakov Lemmer and Aaron Bensoussan