Jewish music is certainly not a monolithic creature. When the Jews left the Holy Land either in bondage or in flight, they established communities in just about all the countries of Europe, Asia and North Africa. While, for the most part, they were physically separated from the indigenous populations, their language and their music took on some of the color of their host cultures. There is no such thing as Jewish music, but rather Jewish musics.
At Temple Beth Or the Triangle Jewish Chorale under the direction of Jane Peppler, 33 amateur singers - occasionally doubling on instruments - presented a varied program of choral arrangements of songs from all aspects of Jewish life and from many of the most prolific Jewish musical traditions. There were Yiddish songs from the stetl , the isolated Jewish villages of Eastern Europe, songs from 19th century Zionism and from modern Israel, from the Ladino Sephardic communities originating in Spain and Portugal, and liturgical music from the Italian Renaissance and the nineteenth and 20th century.
A poorly formatted program was thankfully supplemented by informative oral program notes presented by individual chorus members and translations from the bimah (the raised platform holding the Ark of Torah scrolls, the rabbi and participants in a Jewish service).
The Chorale is clearly a labor of love and enthusiasm, not a polished ensemble. But then, there is no tradition of professional choral singing in Judaism. Some off-key rumblings, brief pauses while Peppler gave whispered directions to the group, and even the absence of a standard dress code added a certain authentic charm to the performance where such "unprofessional" qualities would bring down our critics' wrath at a formal classical concert. Of the various styles, the Yiddish folksongs were most in keeping with the vocal quality of the group. But hard work made for good diction in all the languages, adding a lot to the enjoyment of the performance.
It is impossible to enumerate all the selections, but here are some of the highlights. Lev Zilberter, a recent immigrant from Russia and a talented tenor gave a lovely solo introduction in Russian to "Aleyn in Veg" (alone on the road - a lonely wanderer argues with his god), which the Chorale followed in Yiddish. An interesting selection was Randall Thompson's "Alleluia," composed in 1940, contrasted with a recently composed traditional Jewish version by cantor B.E. Schiller. Nancy Rokamora performed a haunting Ladino song on the pains of separation, "Al noche lunar" (on a moonlit night).
No choral concert of Jewish music can omit at least one work by Salomone Rossi, the contemporary of Monteverdi who adapted Jewish liturgical music to the style of the music of the Church. As might be expected Rossi's "Hashkiveinu" (lay us down in peace) needs a more polished a cappella ensemble.
Broad humor is a prominent feature in Yiddish musical tradition, especially in music for wedding celebrations that were supposed to last seven days. Peppler, accompanying herself with a ritornello on the violin, sang a rousing and humorous wedding song from Sarajevo. There was even slapstick, another feature in Yiddish tradition. "Itzik Shpitsik" (scrawny Itzik), sung and acted by Bernie Most, is based on humorous Yiddish stories and is often modified by the singers to fit any celebratory occasion. The version here - in part written by members of the Chorale - made fun of dancing, celebrations and, to cap it all off, mothers-in-law - "May she live to 120!"
The Triangle Jewish Chorale describes itself as a group of people from all walks of life, from college students to retirees, who love to sing. Their music fills a void in the fabric of music in the Triangle and is a wonderful introduction for Jews and non-Jews alike to a wealth of traditional music.