While Catholics and Protestants have a wealth of liturgical music to grace both their services and concert programs, there is little Jewish music to serve this double function. The reason is that traditional Judaism, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, generally have limited their sung liturgy to chant, some of which has been handed down for thousands of years. Nineteenth-century Germany saw the development of Reform Judaism, a departure from the ancient traditions, to assimilate Judaism into the prevailing social and religious culture of Western Europe, particularly Germany. Synagogues that had never seen a musical instrument, except for the shofar (the ritual ram's horn) now sported organs and choirs. An entirely new genre of Jewish liturgical music arose as an integral part of the Reform movement.
For its final concert of the season the Choral Society of Durham (CDS) under Director Rodney Wynkoop performed Ernst Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) composed in 1930 as a contribution to the Reform Jewish tradition. The commission came from cantor Reuben Rinder of San Francisco's Temple Emanuel-which 18 years later induced Darius Milhaud to compose one as well. To fill out this concert of music on Jewish themes CSD also performed a deservedly little known work by Franz Schubert, Miriams Siegesgesang (Miriam's Song of Triumph).
The less said about this latter work the better. Composed in 1828 shortly before Schubert's death and left only in a version with piano accompaniment, it was first performed in its original form in 1829, and then in 1830 with a brassy orchestration by Franz Lachner. This orchestration requires a soprano with a hefty set of lungs to compete with the heavy accompaniment, and soloist Penelope Jensen, noted for her delicate voice and musicianship in interpretations of the Lieder and Baroque repertory, just didn't have the power required. The work tells the story of Miriam, Moses's sister, and her triumphant song after the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh's army. This bombastically sentimental poem, written by Schubert's friend, poet manqué Franz Grillparzer-best known to Americans as the poet who gave his name to Vienna's C-rated Pension Grillparzer in John Irving's novel Hotel new Hampshire-received from the composer the music it deserved. It would have been better left unresuscitated.
Now to the Bloch. Avodath Hakodesh is a setting of the principal sung elements of the Sabbath synagogue service. Most Reform Jews have heard in synagogue at least some of Bloch's music radically reduced for a small choir, cantor and usually organ and parts of it have also been used for the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). But nothing compares to the fully orchestrated version with sizable chorus. This is the Verdi Requiem of Jewish liturgical music.
CSD's performance was electrifying. Baritone Sanford Sylvan as Cantor had a clear rich tone. His expressive musicianship indicated that he obviously knew the meaning of every word of the Hebrew text. A veteran opera, oratorio and Lieder singer (he sang a Winterreise in Raleigh a few years ago), his voice soared with ease over the large orchestra and chorus. Wynkoop and the chorus, too, had been thoroughly coached in pronunciation and meaning of the text, a fact reflected in completely appropriate dynamics for the quiet, more lyrical prayers versus the massive sound required for the "shema," the central affirmation of the one God, and the accompaniment for the opening of the ark in preparation for reading from the Torah.