By Edward Kliszus
MasterVoices Presents Jewish Sacred Music in tonight’s O How Good program. This was a celebration of the life of MasterVoices board member Lois Conway. Hence, it celebrated Conway’s life, philanthropy, and insightful leadership characterizing her service. The venue chosen for this event was moreover inspiring and magnificent as set in New York City’s Central Synagogue. It’s of course a stunning example of Moorish Revival architecture and a testament to the beauty and richness of Jewish tradition and culture.
The Torah Scrolls
The main sanctuary features a soaring, domed ceiling with intricate geometric patterns and a massive chandelier glittering with thousands of crystals. Central Synagogue is indeed the home of a beautiful ark, which houses the Torah scrolls. Its intricate stained-glass windows cast a warm, colorful light over the space. The building naturally exudes a sense of grandeur and spirituality, making it a fabulous place of worship or for MasterVoices Presents Jewish Sacred Music. Furthermore, it is an exceptional venue for a musical celebration of a life lived well.
Conductor Ted Sperling began the concert with Kurt Weills Kiddush (1933), a choral work with lyrics by the prominent Jewish poet Rabbi Abraham Meir Ibn Ezra. Kiddush was written for the Jewish Sabbath eve and is a setting of the traditional Hebrew prayer for sanctification, recited over wine. It is also a powerful and unique composition that blends Jewish liturgy with modern musical styles. The work featured solo cantor and tenor Daniel Mutlu, and baritone Justin Austin. The MasterVoices four-part choir and organist David Strickland accompanied.
Ancient, Sacred Text
The cantor began by singing the opening lines of the Kiddush prayer, followed by the choir repeating the same text in a harmonized choral arrangement. Weill’s setting is notable for juxtaposing an ancient, sacred text with contemporary harmonies. He also included musical forms from jazz and musical theater elements. The piece’s middle section featured a soaring, operatic solo by the cantor. This expressed the joy and sanctity of the Sabbath. Next was a choral response, building to a rousing apogee. The Benediction provided a simple, prayerful reprise of the opening melody, bringing the work to a peaceful close.
A Celebration of Life
The audience next enjoyed a world premiere performance of And the Sun Goes Up by composer Daniel Rein. Rein introduced his work and accompanied on piano as Maestro Sperling conducted. Featured soloists were soprano Erin Brittain and alto Suzanne Schwing. Rein described his work as a celebration of life. And the Sun Goes Up was dramatic, joyful, introspective, and celebratory. A fresh and rhythmically exciting work, the audience was inevitably drawn into jubilant clapping. This exuberant and marvelous choral piece shall certainly join the oeuvre of important celebratory musical works.
The program concluded with Ernst Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) (1933), a marvelous and essential large-scale choral work for soloists, choir, and orchestra. In his book Modern Composers, David Ewen wrote: “Something of the ecstasy of the Hebraic prophet has molded the artistic career of Ernst Bloch. No biblical Jeremiah consecrated himself to the pronouncement of prophetic truths with more passionate idealism and self-abnegation than Bloch to the composition of music. To Bloch, the creation of music in general, and Hebrew music in particular, has been a sacrosanct mission.”
Majesty and Sanctity
Sacred Service was sung tonight in Ashkenazic Hebrew. It is a setting of the Sabbath morning liturgy from the Jewish prayer book, known as the “Shabbat Morning Service” or “Shacharit.” This performance was powerful and deeply spiritual as it sought to convey the majesty and sanctity of the Jewish worship experience.
The Sacred Service
The organization of the Avodath Hakodesh embraces the basic tenets of both Hebrew and Christian liturgy. It uses invocations of the precentor, subsequent responses, and meditative orchestral interludes. Akin to the broad tradition of liturgical works, its structure most decidedly gave the piece a ceremonial character noted for centuries in religious works. Bloch’s music combines Jewish musical traditions throughout the Sacred Service, including cantorial melodies and Klezmer-style instrumentation. The liturgical works of Bach and Handel also influenced the work.
The “Kedusha” (sanctification) was a rousing choral hymn celebrating the holiness of God. Notably, in the final section, “Vaanachnu” (Adoration), also known as the “Concluding Hymn,” is a triumphant choral expression bringing the piece to a stirring close.
Our experience of Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) performed by MasterVoices was a spiritual and artistic experience of sublime choral music. It expressed the beauty and profundity of Jewish liturgy in a profoundly moving and musically compelling way.
Ted Sperling conducted with expression and aplomb. He clearly conveyed his deep understanding of the music and artistic vision to the choir. He leads with a strong sense of rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, and precise gestures. The soloists and choir’s elegant responses to Sperling’s leadership were characterized by excitement and inspiration, creating a truly memorable musical experience.
Tenor Daniel Mutlu projected clear, resonant, focused intones throughout his range, with smooth transitions between registers. He produced a wide variety of vocal colors, from a bright and ringing sound to a warm and velvety tone, depending on the demands of the music.
Mutlu adapted his singing style to match the emotional content of the music. He conveyed both joy and sadness, passion and tenderness. His technical skill, musical sensitivity, and expressive power were mesmerizing.
Drama and Narrative
Baritone Justin Austin played a significant role throughout tonight’s program of MasterVoices Presents Jewish Sacred Music. Moreover, he expressed a musical narrative with his rich, resonant, and powerful voice. Austin produced marvelous vocal colors and dynamic contrasts. He then maintained a consistent and even tone throughout his range, with smooth transitions between registers. Austin meanwhile demonstrated excellent breath control, facilitating long phrases while delivering a sense of ease and effortlessness in his singing. While conveying the meaning and emotion of the music, Austin deftly communicated a sense of drama and narrative while connecting with the audience on a deep emotional level. His voice furthermore radiated a sense of sincerity and vulnerability in his singing. He clearly possesses a natural stage presence and the ability to engage with the audience in a powerful and charismatic way.
MasterVoices Presents Jewish Sacred Music
Ted Sperling, conductor
Justin Austin, baritone
Daniel Mutlu, tenor
David Strickland, organ
Daniel Rein, piano
Erin Brittain, soprano
Suzanne Schwing, alto
For information about MasterVoices, go to MasterVoices.org.
For tickets to MasterVoices May 3 Carnegie Hall Performance of IOLANTHE by Arthur S. Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, go to https://www.mastervoices.org/events/iolanthe/.