Tracing currents of Jewish choral tradition, in Russia and beyond
by Jason Zahorchak for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 27, 2015

RCCNY--June 3 and 7Continuing its 30th Anniversary celebration, The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York presents a program that highlights the richness of Jewish musical tradition through a selection of classical works from Russia, Israel and the United States. The works featured span folk and liturgical genres and a variety of styles -- but they are united, either by text or texture, to a shared heritage and historical experience.

Beyond highlighting a vast scope of musical creativity, the concert allows the Russian Chamber Chorus to pay respect to the depth and breadth of Jewish contributions to the Russian musical world -- for the very foundation of musical education in Russia was laid by Jewish individuals there. The Saint Petersburg Conservatory was founded by Anton Rubinstein, the Moscow Conservatory by his brother Nikolai; the Gnesin sisters founded the Gnesin State Musical College in Moscow (now the Gnesin Russian Academy of Music), while their brother Mikhail was the founder of the Conservatory in the city of Rostov-on-Don. These are but a few examples.

One of the centerpieces of the concert is a set of grand, operatic choruses by the great 19th century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Why include Mussorgsky in a program of Jewish music? As did many in other musical traditions, Russian composers turned to Jewish musical culture for inspiration and contributed to it in return, including Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Taneyev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich -- and especially Mussorgsky. Mussorgsky was a composer with a deep understanding of Jewish musical culture, creating works that are considered by musicologists to have roots in Jewish melodic traditions. Throughout his lifetime, he was deeply inspired by Jewish musical accomplishment -- he wrote of the melodies he heard in Odessa synagogues during his 1879 concert tour, “I clearly remember two Israelite themes: one sung by the cantor, the other by the temple choir...I shall never forget these!”

The group will perform The Destruction of Sennacherib and Joshua by Mussorgsky. Both are settings of Bible scenes. Mussorgsky wrote the lyrics for Joshua based on a description of the Biblical battle of Gibeon, and based the text for The Destruction of Sennacherib on the poem written by Lord Byron in his Hebrew Melodies, using motifs and coloration inspired by Jewish music. Though smaller in scale, they merit comparison to the operatic choral scenes for which Mussorgsky is so well known. The Destruction of Sennacherib was composed in 1867. Vladimir Stasov wrote: “This Chorus contains outstanding musical beauties: a combination of superbly captured Eastern elements.” Mussorgsky finished Joshua of Nun in 1877, here, too, employing authentic Jewish melodies to tell the story. In this way, Mussorgsky’s works provide a bridge between Russian and Jewish musical cultures, contributing to both.

The program also includes the United States premiere of the Prayer of Shmuel Ha Nagid by Efrem Podgaits. Podgaits, a composer based in Moscow, sets a Jewish prayer for women's voices and cello. The piece is an example of contemporary composition with extraordinary harmony for women's voices. Through its blending of ancient Jewish intonations with advanced techniques of contemporary classical music, this composition creates a unique sound palette that ranges from dramatic to celestial. Also included is Jerusalem Dreams by Zakhar Blyakher. The composer, born in Russia and living in Israel, has written a four-part choral cycle for choir, soprano voice, flute, clarinet and percussion. In this composition, the ancient Hebrew “Hallelujah,” King David's Psalm, a bright picture of a folk celebration of Purim and a touching Lullaby are combined, conveying a mood of reflection and apprehension with a note of hope for peace for Israel.

Jewish liturgical music is represented in the program by the piece Mi Yitneni by the German-born composer Heinrich Schalit, a liturgical composition written for the Yom Kippur Afternoon Memorial service. The work exemplifies the influence of European musical culture on contemporary Jewish liturgical music. Eshet Chayil by Mordecai Seter is a beautiful and touching choral sketch of a traditional Jewish home prayer in which a husband praises his wife, with their children following him in thanking their mother before partaking of the Shabbat dinner. The program is rounded out by Hora by Marc Lavry,  I am Come into My Garden by Lee Kesselman, and the third movement from the monumental Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. Unlike Mussorgsky’s Biblical scenes, which combine Jewish musical tradition with Russian text (by way of Byron), Bernstein’s composition employs a reverse combination -- Biblical Hebrew verse (Psalms 131 and 133) and Christian choral tradition.  The Russian Chamber Chorus will perform this movement in a new arrangement by Mikhail Zeiger for chorus, piano, cello and violin.

Jewish culture, with its myriad sources of influence, was inevitably shaped by the history of the Jewish people, scattered throughout the world. This is why Jewish musical culture evolved as a "global mirror," taking on remarkably diverse styles, while at the same time remaining uniquely Jewish. Come to listen to the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York and hear these vibrant currents, old and new.

Guest artists: Hanna Golodinskii, soprano; Mikhail Zeiger, piano; Serafim Smigelskiy, cello (June 3); Adrian Daurov, cello (June 7); Elizabeth Derham, violin; Avigail Malachi-Baev, clarinet; Jessica Taskov, flute.


The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York performs "Currents of Jewish Classical Tradition" on Wednesday, June 3, 2015, 8 PM, Town and Village Synagogue, 334 East 14th Street (between First and Second Avenues), and on Sunday, June 7, 2015, 7:30 PM, Brick Presbyterian Church, 1140 Park Avenue (at 91st Street). Tickets at the door: $25; $15 for students and seniors 65+. 20% discount for tickets purchased 5 days prior to concert. For additional information, visit www.rccny.org or call (212) 928-1402.

Jason Zahorchak is a tenor with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York. This article is based on program notes by Nikolai Kachanov, translated by Maria Bromberg.