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Jewish music has a long and distinguished history stretching back thousands of years, and too little of it appears with any kind of regularity on contemporary concert programs, aside from "mainstream" classical works by folks who just happen to have been Jewish. For that reason, and because much of the traditional and folk music from this esteemed heritage is somewhat better known than many people realize, the annual holiday concerts, given by the Triangle Jewish Chorale, are highlights of the end-of-year season. This time around, the venue was the Chapel Hill Kehillah (formerly, the Bible Church, on Mason Farm Road), where director Jane Peppler, her 20 vocalists, and instrumentalists Andrew Geller, Belinda Novik, and Gary Berman captivated and entertained a sizeable crowd with music that clearly was part and parcel of the very beings of most of the attendees. I hasten to add that those not raised in the Jewish faith surely felt both welcome and at home, too, for many of the melodies heard appear in various folk music and dances from Europe and elsewhere. As a result, long-term patrons of concert series featuring, say, major Eastern European dance and choral groups would surely have recognized some of the influences, if not the actual material. The works were sung, variously, in Yiddish, Ladino, Hebrew, and English, and Peppler even managed to get her audience to take part in sing-alongs - in Yiddish, no less (which, for some of us, took some encouraging). The printed program contained no notes on the music, but each work was introduced as the concert unfolded.
The program was somewhat atypical for this volunteer ensemble, and a note at the bottom of the works-list stated that the offerings were mostly traditional songs. That said, the highlights of the generous evening included several noteworthy samples of music from the baroque era, including two pieces by Salamone Rossi that are basically staples of the TJC. These are "Hashkivenu" ("God protect us") and "Barechu" ("Praise the Lord"), and both are stunning works that, translated into the then-prevalent language of the church, would surely have been embraced more universally than turned out to be the case. Several other numbers were credited to known composers, a few of whom are still in the land of the living; these included William Sharlin's modern setting (1973) of "Shalom Aleycheim," Benjie Schiller's "Shalom Rav," and Charles Osborne's recent (1996) "Samachti B'Omrim," which served to prove that the tradition continues....
There was a big departure from the norm this time, too, with a lovely rendition from the Sacred Harp tradition, "An Equal Song" - it was introduced with the observation that, early on in that tradition, most of the texts were from the Old Testament. The Yiddish songs were given with great zest, invariably from the heart, and some of them - and other works, too - were accompanied, by drums (dumbek), recorder, clarinet, concertina, and violin; and as the intermission drew to a close, there was a short interlude for small pipes (a less-than-full set of what most people would know as the Highland bagpipes) and violin. Mostly, however, the accompaniments, when there were accompaniments, were provided by pianist Berman, who entered into the spirit of the occasion every bit as much as the singers. There were some lovely and effective solos along the way, too, more than a few of which were informed by "tradition," for better (or worse). Nancy Rocamora was the busiest of the solo artists, rendering "Hannukah" and a recitative-laden "Cantata ebraica" and joining Peppler in "Yom Ze Mekhubad," with concertina accompaniment. Bernie Most stood out with his robust, almost over-the-top "Itsik Shpitsik" and directed one of the numbers in the first half, too.
Many of the songs were somber in nature, but not all fell into this category. From a purely musical perspective, the program reflected great variety in mood and texture, too, and the fact that the choruses were interspersed with solos and occasional instrumental accompaniments helped keep audience interest at high levels.
The sing-alongs included "Oy Khanuke" (spellings vary with the language involved), "Khanuke iz Freylekh," "Zol Shoyn Kumen di Geule," and the well-known (even outside the family...) "Maoz Tzur."
As the program explained, and as our colleagues Elizabeth and Joe Khan noted last year, the Triangle Jewish Chorale exists because its members love to sing, and their singing, on this occasion and at previous concerts we've been privileged to attend, is infectious. Look for an announcement of their spring concert in our calendar in due course.