About this Recording
8.559419 - VIENNA BOYS CHOIR: A Jewish Celebration in Song
English 

Vienna Boys Choir
A Jewish Celebration in Song
Sholom Kalib: The Day of Rest
Abraham Kaplan: Psalms of Abraham

 

Introduction

How did one of Europe's oldest and most venerated choral ensembles come to record works of Jewish sacred music that originally were created for a chorus of Jewish youth in a relatively small Midwestern American city hardly known in Europe? Why did a Viennese boys choir long associated with the Roman Catholic Imperial Chapel — a fixture for centuries in the glorious days of the Hapsburg emperors — become intrigued with American Jewish song and the music of the American Synagogue?

In 1971, Cantor Jerome B. Kopmar founded a children's chorus under the auspices of his congregation in Dayton, Ohio, for the dual purposes of elevating the musical format of its services and of offering concert performances for a broader general public. Known as the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale, the ensemble (at its peak some eighty members between the ages of nine and eighteen) was dedicated to serious rendition of Jewish and Judaically related music. It quickly attracted national attention — the only Jewish youth chorus to do so in the postwar decades — performed twice in Israel as well as in England, and toured various parts of the United States, all in addition to its annual spring concerts at home.

Establishing such a Jewish youth ensemble with a classical approach was in itself a courageous undertaking in the early 1970s, a time when the winds of Jewish musical fashion (in Israel as well as the United States) — especially with regard to youth involvement — were coming to be dominated by the allure of mass appeal and the features of pop and commercial sounds. The experiment proved successful nonetheless and validated the convictions of those whose faith in the value and attraction of seriously cultivated sacred as well as secular Jewish choral music remained undiminished.

Beyond the valuable educational and artistic experience for the children involved and the aesthetic pleasure they brought to their audiences, the most lasting contribution of this all-too-brief episode in American Jewish cultural history is the body of new works commissioned for the chorale's repertoire and for its annual premiere offerings. Over a period of twelve years, until the dissolution of the chorale and Kopmar's retirement, full-length works and shorter individual pieces were commissioned from such composers as Issachar Miron, Charles Davidson, Morton Gold, Ralph Schlossberg, Abraham Kaplan, and Sholom Kalib — among others.

Both works recorded here by the Vienna Boys Choir were Beth Abraham commissions, and both received their premieres in Dayton by the chorale with orchestra, conducted by Kopmar: the Kaplan work in 1980, with Cantor David Lefkowitz singing the tenor solo part; Kalib's in 1978, with Cantor Moshe Taubé.

The Kaplan and the Kalib works were both written for three-part treble voice choir, as dictated by all the Beth Abraham commissions. However in 2000, in advance of the present recordings, Norbert Balatsch, then the director of the Vienna Boys Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben), suggested to the Milken Archive the addition of timbrel variety by having some movements of each work rearranged to include the adult men's Chorus Viennensis (in effect the alumni chorus of the boy choir) for these recordings. Accordingly, the Milken Archive commissioned the two composers to rework some of the settings to combine the adult men's with the boys' voices. In fact, the four-part SATB format, with boys singing soprano and alto and the adult men on tenor and bass, was the typical medium of virtually all eastern European synagogue choral music.

Since the recording sessions for the Milken Archive, the Vienna Boys Choir have featured this music of American Jewish experience in its regular concerts and on its worldwide tours.

Neil W. Levin

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About the Composers

As a Jewish music scholar and as a composer and arranger, Sholom Kalib (b. 1929) has focused specifically on the eastern European cantorial and synagogue music tradition — in its American phase as well as in its original forms. He has championed its rejuvenation and perpetuation through both historical analysis and the creation of new works based on its emblematic modes, stylistic idioms, and collective melos.

Kalib, whose uncle and grandfather were cantors in the traditional eastern European mold, was born in Dallas, Texas. His father taught him biblical cantillation along with the requisite skills of a baal t'filla (lay precentor) and schooled him in the rudiments of music. Young Kalib's initial exposure to cantorial choral repertoire came when he began singing at the age of eleven in a local orthodox synagogue choir, soon becoming something of a child-prodigy cantor. When his family moved to Chicago in 1942, he joined the choir of Cantor Abraham Kipper (1900–52), one of the leading resident cantors of that city's orthodox community. Highly impressed with the boy's talent, Cantor Kipper engaged Kalib to prepare and conduct the choir for Kipper's audition for the coveted cantorial position for the 1943 High Holy Days at Chicago's Roumanian Synagogue (the Rumeinishe shul ), Shaarei Shamayim. In order to be considered for such important guest cantorial posts at that time, cantors had to demonstrate that they had first-class choirs. When Kipper received the appointment, Kalib became his choirmaster for those High Holy Day services — at the age of fourteen.

His tasks included notating Kipper's repertoire, most of which was a mixture of improvised chants and melodies known by rote or from memory — a not uncommon situation among many cantors of that era. Kalib had begun studying harmony and basic theory, areas that turned out to have a special allure for him in the abstract, and these became a lifelong academic pursuit. Dissatisfied with Kipper's primitive collection of two-part ditties and responses, he took the initiative to rearrange the entire repertoire into full-fledged four-part choral settings. That endeavor met with instant success, and soon Kalib was much in demand among cantors in the Chicago area who needed choral arrangements, or piano or organ accompaniments for cantorial concert numbers. He was frequently asked to notate other cantors' repertoires by dictation. Such projects later reached a zenith in Kalib's notation and publication of the accumulated but unwritten music of Cantor Todros Greenberg (1893–1976) — an effort that spanned a period of nearly forty years and provided a wealth of material for future generations of cantors and choirs. Meanwhile, Kalib gained a reputation throughout North America as one of the leading arrangers of cantorial and synagogue choral music, producing a large catalogue of settings both for his own use and on request from fellow cantors and choirmasters. These exhibit a careful balance between freshness and historically authentic style, between idiomatic simplicity and appropriately restrained imagination — yet avoiding a common tendency among many arrangers toward excess and harmonic clutter.

During his early student years in Chicago, Kalib also organized and directed a choir under the auspices of the Chicago chapter of Hashomer Hadati, the cultural and educational youth organization of Hapo'alei Mizrahi, the religious (orthodox) Zionist group. That choir became an important part of Chicago Jewry's cultural life during the second half of the 1940s. Kalib worked with and directed various synagogue choirs as well, including that of the locally famous K'nesset Israel Nusah S'fard (the Sefardishe shul) — a fully Ashkenazi synagogue that employs the Sephardi rite (nusah s'fard) in terms of liturgical texts and order of prayers, not music — where the legendary cantorial giant Pierre Pinchik (1895–1971) officiated for many holyday and guest Sabbath services. Kalib also prepared the choirs for Jack Werblin, Pinchik's choirmaster for some of those services.

For a performance in Yiddish of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, Kalib was the assistant choirmaster to Eugene Malek, director of the left-wing Yiddishist secular ensemble, the Jewish Peoples' Philharmonic Chorus — the local chapter of the Freiheits Gezang Verein. That concert — at Chicago's principal concert venue, Orchestra Hall, with Richard Tucker in the lead tenor role — was Kalib's first exposure to Western classical music. Meanwhile, in 1949 he assumed his first cantorial post, at the Vilna shul in Chicago.

At Roosevelt University in Chicago, Kalib was first introduced to the theoretical work of the foremost 20th century music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose approach he adopted and later applied to his analyses of cantorial art and repertoire. After earning a bachelor's degree in theory, he received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University (also in theory) and then became a professor of music at Eastern Michigan University from 1969 until his retirement. Kalib also served cantorial posts in Detroit and in Flint, Michigan.

Kalib's choral arrangements sometimes cross the blurry line between arranging and composition, especially with those arrangements for which there is no preexisting choral element. Many of the Greenberg arrangements, for example, could be considered de facto compositions that use and incorporate — or are based on — Greenberg's cantorial lines and melodies. But even in his completely original pieces, such as those on this recording, Kalib faithfully has maintained typical eastern European cantorial idioms, traditions, and style, often adding new but carefully controlled harmonic elements and classical orchestrations for concert use.

In addition to Day of Rest, Kalib's larger works include Rejoice and Sing, a suite of eight Hassidic melodies, and Days of Awe, a concert setting of High Holy Day liturgy in four sections for cantor, chorus, and orchestra (the individual settings of which can also be rendered a cappella for actual synagogue use).

His five-volume historical-analytical work, The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue — an encyclopedic discussion and documentation of virtually all aspects of the subject — represents four decades of research and investigation. The first volume was published by Syracuse University Press in 2002.

 

Born in Tel Aviv, Abraham Kaplan (b. 1931) first came to wide public attention in the United States following his American debut in 1962 as a young choral director and conductor. He subsequently gained recognition as a composer as well. His father, Shlomo Kaplan — the son of an eastern European cantor and choir conductor — came to Israel from Poland in the 1920s and was a prominent choral conductor and music pedagogue in Israel. He taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and was head of the music department of the Histadrut (the United Federation of Labor Unions of Israel) prior to statehood and until the end of his life, in 1974.

Abraham Kaplan sang in his father's choirs as a young boy and soon became the leader of a choir at a kibbutz near the Lebanese border and a music teacher in high schools. He acquired his formal music education at the (former) Israel Academy of Music in Jerusalem, graduating in 1953, and he made his professional debut directing the Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel radio) chorus in 1952 at concerts in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. He was subsequently engaged as its permanent director, and he prepared it in 1954 for the world premiere of Darius Milhaud's opera David.

Kaplan came to America in 1954 on a scholarship to study at the Aspen Music School and for advanced studies at The Juilliard School, where he was awarded the Damrosch Prize in conducting and a postgraduate diploma in 1957. He also attended the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (1956 and 1961) as both a choral and an orchestral conductor. His principal teachers were William Steinberg, Hugh Ross, and Frederick Prausnitz for conducting; and Milhaud for composition. He returned to Israel during the 1958–59 season, but soon afterward he was invited to bring an Israeli chorus to New York for an "All-Israel" show at Radio City Music Hall. His decision to remain in America was bolstered by Juilliard's invitation to join its faculty as director of choral studies, a position he held with distinction from 1961 until 1977. He also taught during that period at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

In 1962 Kaplan prepared the Juilliard chorus for its appearance at the opening night of New York's new Lincoln Center, at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), in an inaugural concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Many years of collaboration with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic followed, with Kaplan preparing choruses for numerous concerts and recordings — including the premieres of such major Bernstein works as the Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms. Kaplan conducted many important premieres of choral-orchestral works, such as Robert Starer's Joseph and His Bretheren, Vincent Persichetti's Stabat Mater, and George Rochberg's third symphony. He also founded the Camerata Singers, his own professional chorus, which he conducted both in New York and on tours for many years and with which he made a number of important recordings; and he directed New York's Collegiate Chorale as well.

During the 1969–70 season — which saw the founding of the Symphonic Choral Society of New York and the debut of the Camerata Symphony Orchestra, both under his direction — Kaplan was critically praised as an orchestral maestro as well as a choral conductor. During his career he has also guest conducted numerous ensembles, including the Israel Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic, the San Francisco Opera, and the Seattle Symphony.

In 1968 Kaplan became the director of choral activities at New York's prestigious Park Avenue Synagogue, where, over a period of more than thirty years, he conducted premieres of many new works by major composers at the synagogue's annual new music services. He also began composing his own liturgical settings for these services. In 1977 he relocated to Seattle to begin his tenure as director of choral studies at the University of Washington, and he was also associate director for choral activities of the Seattle Symphony.

In the early 1970s Kaplan began turning his attention with increasing intensity to composition. His first major work was his oratorio, Glorious (1973). Among his subsequent major works are Arvit l'shabbat, a complete Sabbath evening service; the K'dusha Symphony, which was recorded with soprano Roberta Peters; Crystal Cathedral Psalms ; and Psalms of Abraham, heard on this recording. His college textbook, Choral Conducting, was published by W. W. Norton in 1985 (twice reprinted) and is widely used at conservatories and college music departments throughout the United States and Canada.

Neil W. Levin

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Program Notes

 

Sholom Kalib: The Day of Rest

The Day of Rest is a concert service comprising settings of texts from three sections of the Sabbath liturgy: for Friday evening (kabbalat shabbat and arvit), for Saturday morning (shaharit, the Torah service, and mussaf ), and for the concluding service on Saturday evening. There are nineteen numbers in all, from which six have been excerpted for this recording.

The Day of Rest was intended deliberately to recall and incorporate cantorial idioms, melodic contours, modal practices and patterns, and an overall emotional ambience of the aggregate eastern European cantorial-choral tradition. That tradition developed gradually in large areas of the Czarist and Hapsburg empires from at least the 17th century and reached its zenith in the late 19th century. Aspects of it were transplanted in America by immigrant cantors and choirmasters from those regions, albeit not without a degree of dilution and even some corruption. The stamp of that tradition at its most sophisticated level is manifestly transparent in these settings. Yet in certain sections and passages there is also the discernible imprint of the imposing grandeur and majesty more commonly associated with the character of the 19th century western Ashkenazi — or "German" — Synagogue. In particular, there are some stylistic resonances of the path forged by Salomon Sulzer (1804–90) in Vienna and Louis Lewandowski (1821–94) in Berlin — the two principal architects of a learned approach to modern synagogue music based on Western classical or art music models. That echo is especially evident here in the setting of Uv'nuho yomar in a seamless and symbiotic blend with other, more specifically eastern European features. The apparent admixture poses no stylistic conflict, however; nor does it undermine the composer's claim to eastern European foundation, for both Sulzer's and Lewandowski's impact upon eastern European repertoires and tastes was formidable, even if not always popularly perceived. Indeed, the polarization between the two traditions was not always quite so distinct, nor the dividing wall quite so opaque, as is sometimes imagined. Extant choral books reveal that by the late 19th century, certain Sulzer and Lewandowski compositions were in use throughout the eastern Ashkenazi orbit, in conjunction with creations of local composers. Thus the overall flavor of Kalib's Uv'nuho yomar is no less an indication of eastern European practice than other, more typically eastern European melody types.

The composer has offered the following observations and remarks on these excerpts:

1. Shalom aleikhem is a four-stanza hymn of greeting to the angels who, according to Talmudic legend, accompany Jews home from the synagogue on Friday evenings following the Sabbath eve service. It is the first of a set of z'mirot (table hymns) sung as the assemblage gathers around the table prior to commencing the Sabbath eve meal. The text is set here in a joyous mood and tempo, which gives way by contrast in the third strophe to a slower, tranquil, and celestial tone to mirror the words, "Bless me with peace, O angels of peace …"

2. Uv'nuho yomar occurs at the end of the Torah service — during the morning service — and is recited as the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark following the communal reading. The music here projects the contrasting moods within the text. Quiet majesty accompanies the opening lines; a didactic and devotional mood is accorded the succeeding section, which includes the words "For I have given you good teaching — forsake not My Torah"; and the words "It is a tree of life to those who grasp it" have been set in a declamatory style. The closing words, "Bring us back to You, O Lord", are intoned in a mood of nostalgic longing.

3. Mimm'komo (Ezekiel 3:12) is a constituent passage of the larger liturgical text recited during the mussaf service on Sabbath and holyday mornings, which is known as the k'dusha (sanctification). The opening words are interpreted majestically in this setting, moving towards a mood of devotion in anticipation of the text that follows in reference to the required proclamation of the sh'ma — the basic credo of Jewish faith.

4. The instrumental prelude to the concluding service is based upon motives from the Sabbath afternoon service (minha). Its melancholy mood reflects the waning of the spiritually uplifting Sabbath day. Its minor mode drifts to another parallel one (major third phrygian) that is traditionally employed in the Saturday evening service, including the havdala text.

5. Havdala is the ceremonial benediction over wine, a lit candle, and aromatic spices, marking the departure of the Sabbath. Here the cantor begins the havdala with a recitative-type passage. In the spirited metrical tune that follows, to the words "You will draw water from the wells of salvation", the choral treatment involves tone painting to depict the flowing water. For the words that refer to trust in God's protective power — in essence praying for its assured presence during the coming new week — the cantorial recitative gives the feeling of supplication, and the succeeding phrases move towards a triumphal, joyous conclusion.

6. Eliyahu hannavi is a hymn for the departure of the Sabbath. According to tradition, the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) is believed to be the future harbinger of the Messiah's arrival. The words are set here in the manner of a fugue, whose subject suggests a quasi-Hassidic tune. The traditional Yiddish greeting, a gute vokh (May you have a good week…) is included towards the end, and the setting draws to a climactic close on the word amen in a resolute and triumphal spirit.

Sholom Kalib, 2003

In keeping with the Ashkenazi derivation of this work, the composer has set all of the texts according to classical Ashkenazi pronunciation and accentuation. This has been maintained in the present recording. Adjustment to modern Hebrew would require distortions of the rhythmic flow and consonant substitutions, and would preclude certain typical elisions — all of which would detract from the intended traditional eastern European flavor.

Neil W. Levin

 

Abraham Kaplan: Psalms of Abraham

Psalms of Abraham is a cantata comprising twelve original settings of eleven Psalms (or excerpts) from the biblical Book of Psalms — so titled in honor of the Beth Abraham Youth Choir. The composer offered the following reflections on the work at its premiere in 1980:

It is in the nature of things that emotions that fill our hearts and souls do not do so in an orderly fashion … that we rarely are completely sad or totally happy. Most of the time we are somewhere between these two extremes, experiencing two or more emotions, which are intermingled or which occur in quick succession.

It is this aspect of human nature that is represented so well in the texts of the Psalms, and it is this aspect of the Psalms that gave me the courage to attempt a seemingly impossible task: to write twelve individual compositions to constitute a larger unified work.

Some of the various moods of the Psalms are recurrent in the themes of the twelve movements. The moods of the Psalms also dictated the orchestration as well as the texture of each one, thus contributing to the unity of Psalms of Abraham.

Abraham Kaplan, 1980

 


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