Notes from Zamir – May 2005: Table of Contents
- “The Very Expression of my Soul”: Ernest Bloch and the Sacred Service
- Something Old, Something New Zamir Commissions Continue a Musical Tradition
- Joshua Jacobson: Growing Up with Zamir
- Reminiscences on The Origins of Zamir Chorale in America
By Joshua Jacobson
The creator of the greatest Jewish concert music of the 20th century was undoubtedly the Swiss-American composer, Ernest Bloch. Born in Geneva, Switzerland on July 24, 1880, he was the youngest of three children. Although his father was actively involved in the Jewish community, Ernest’s interests were focused on music. By the age of nine, he was already playing the violin and composing. To say that his father did not encourage his musical talent would be an understatement. But despite his father’s objections (Maurice referred to his son’s compositions as Scheissmusik), Ernest continued his musical training, moving from Geneva, where he had studied with Émile Dalcroze to Brussels to work with Eugene Ysaÿe, Frankfurt with Ivan Knorr, Munich with Ludwig Thuille, and Paris where he associated with Claude Debussy.
While in Paris, Bloch renewed his friendship with Edmond Fleg (1874-1963), a poet and historian and a fellow Genevan. Fleg was to plant seeds in his friend’s soul that would bear fruit for many years and change the course of the composer’s life. In 1894 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus had been put on trial in Paris on charges of treason. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to life in a prison colony. But within a few years evidence was brought forth proving that the documents that had incriminated Dreyfus were the forgeries of an anti-Semite. Paris was in turmoil over these revelations, and many Jews, Edmond Fleg among them, became ardent nationalists
It was Fleg’s influence that caused Bloch to rediscover his Jewish roots and proclaim his ethnic pride. In 1906 Bloch wrote a letter to Fleg in which he proclaimed, “I have read the Bible … and an immense sense of pride surged in me. My entire being vibrated; it is a revelation. … I would find myself again a Jew, raise my head proudly as a Jew.” In a subsequent letter to Fleg (1911) Bloch formulated his new artistic manifesto.
I notice here and there themes that are without my willing it, for the greater part Jewish, and which begin to make themselves precise and indicate the instinctive and also conscious direction in which I am going. I do not search to produce a form, I am producing nothing so far, but I feel that the hour will come… There will be Jewish rhapsodies for orchestra, Jewish poems, dances mainly, poems for voices for which I have not the words, but I would wish them Hebraic. All my musical Bible shall come, and I would let sing in me these secular chants where will vibrate all the Jewish soul… I think that I shall write one day songs to be sung at the synagogue in part by the minister, in part by the faithful. It is really strange that all this comes out slowly, this impulse that has chosen me, who all my life have been a stranger to all that is Jewish
Bloch’s terminology is telling. He writes that he did not choose to become a composer of Jewish music, but rather that the impulse had chosen him. Indeed, Bloch had no sympathy for nationalist composers who deliberately tried to insert folk-like themes into their works; Bloch was convinced that if a composition were to be honest and organic, the Jewish element must be integrated subconsciously into the creative process.
To our ears his use of the word “race” may sound alarming and politically incorrect. But Bloch was formulating his thoughts at a time when Europe was formulating a new form of Jew hatred. The term anti-Semitism didn’t make its first appearance until the year 1879, only one year before the composer’s birth. Prior to the Enlightenment, anti-Jewish attacks had been based on religious intolerance or suspicions of divided national loyalty. But in the new liberal Europe, scorn of the Jew would be based on the inferiority of the Semites as a race. The “scientific” study of racial differences led to Joseph-Arthur Gobineau’s, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853) and Richard Wagner’s notorious essay, “Jewishness in Music” (1850), in which he argued that Jews were incapable of creating any original music within the European cultivated tradition. As to the distinctive liturgical music of the Jews, Wagner considered it “a travesty … a repugnant gurgle, yodel and cackle.”
Bloch accepted the idea of the racial distinctiveness of the Jews, but, unlike Wagner, he had an appreciation for traditional synagogue chant, and believed that a Jew who is steeped in that tradition not only could create symphonic music, but could not help but create a work of art that somehow incorporates this traditional foundation.
In 1916 he was quoted in an interview in the Boston Post .
Racial consciousness is something that every great artist must have. A tree must have its roots deep down in its soil. A composer who says something is not only himself. He is his forefathers! He is his people! Then his message takes on a vitality and significance which nothing else can give it, and which is absolutely essential in great art. I try to compose with this in mind. I am a Jew. I have the virtues and defects of the Jew. It is my own belief that when I am most Jewish I compose most effectively.
From 1912 to 1916 Bloch composed a series of works based on Jewish themes, including The Israel Symphony (1912-1916), Three Psalms (1912-1914), Schelomo (1916), the first string quartet (1916), and Three Jewish Poems for Orchestra (1913).
In 1916 Bloch came to New York to conduct a ballet orchestra. He was so taken by the atmosphere and opportunities that the following year he fetched his family and moved permanently to the United States. For three years he was an instructor at the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan. Then, from 1920 to 1925, he served as the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. In 1925 he moved to San Francisco to become Director of the San Francisco Conservatory. In 1930, thanks to a generous trust fund administered though the University of California at Berkeley, Bloch was able to resign his position from the San Francisco Conservatory and devote himself full-time to composing and conducting. After nearly a decade in Europe, Bloch returned to California, to teach an annual workshop for composers at Berkeley. In 1952 he retired from teaching altogether and moved to a reclusive life in Oregon. Bloch died July 15, 1959 in Portland, Oregon.
Bloch’s greatest legacy may be the impressive body of compositions. But in addition, he affected the lives of so many Americans through his inspiring conducting of choruses and orchestras, and through his teaching. The roster of his students reads like a veritable who’s who of American composers, including George Antheil, Henry Cowell, Frederick Jacobi, Leon Kirchner, Douglas Moore, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, Roger Sessions, and Randall Thompson.
In 1929 Bloch’s friend, Cantor Reuben Rinder of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, commissioned him to write a setting of the Sabbath morning liturgy. The composer took the project very seriously.
I am still studying my Hebrew text. I have now memorized entirely the whole service in Hebrew… I know its significance word by word. … But what is more important, I have absorbed it to the point that it has become mine and as if it were the very expression of my soul. It far surpasses a Hebrew Service now. It has become a cosmic poem, a glorification of the laws of the Universe … the very text I was after since the age of ten … a dream of stars, of forces … the Primordial Element … before the worlds existed. … It has become a ‘private affair’ between God and me.
It took Bloch four years to complete his Sacred Service (Avodat Ha-kodesh) , with most of the work done at his retreat in the Swiss Alps. In 1934 he conducted the first performances in concert halls in Turin, Naples, New York, Milan, and London. Ironically, it wasn’t until 1938 that Temple Emanu-El was able to present the work it had commissioned. But perhaps this grand work, with its universal themes, its post-romantic organic conception, scored for large orchestra, chorus, and baritone soloist, was more appropriate for the concert stage than for the synagogue bimah. Bloch himself considered it more a sacred Hebrew oratorio than a Jewish liturgical service. He once said, “I am completely submerged in my great Jewish ‘Oratorio,’ on an enormous Hebrew text, and more cosmic and universal than Jewish.”
Bloch’s “enormous Hebrew text” was supposed to be the Sabbath morning liturgy of the American Reform synagogue, as it appeared in the Union Prayer Book. But by setting only the Hebrew texts, Bloch significantly departed from the Reform liturgy, which was designed to be conducted primarily in English. Furthermore, by creating a major work that was to be performed without interruption, the composer left no room for certain key parts of the service, including the Torah reading and the sermon. In this respect, at least, Bloch’s Service shares a fate with Beethoven’s Missa Solemn is: its scope is too grandiose and its message is too universal for the liturgical function upon which it was based. Indeed, Bloch said that the five parts of the Service “have to be played without interruption, as a unity … like the Mass of the Catholics.”
Unifying the Service is a six-note motif: G-A-C-B-A-G, which Bloch weaves with masterful contrapuntal skill and is heard on nearly every page of the score. While the six-note motif may be thought of as representing the universal message of the Service , another, more sinuous melody represents the more personal, the specifically Jewish aspect. This melody is less rigid rhythmically, and more chromatic, evoking the modes of traditional synagogue chant.
The Service opens with what the composer called, “a kind of ‘Pastorale’—in the desert perhaps — The Temple of God in ‘Nature .'” The voices intone Mah Tovu (“How goodly are thy tents,” a traditional prayer recited on entering a synagogue, but absent from the Union Prayer Book), and continue with Barekhu (call to prayer), and the Shema (Jewish Credo) and its blessings. “Here one feels God Himself knows how beautiful life can be made with joy inside, not through external possessions.” The movement ends with Tsur Yisroel (“Rock of Israel”) , the only part of the Service based on a traditional synagogue melody, a deliciously understated cantorial recitative. Bloch called it a response to “all the misery, the sufferings of Humanity —as represented by a crowd of poor, hungry, persecuted people.
The second movement comprises the central portion of any Jewish liturgy, the Tefillah . Bloch chose to set only the Kedushah (Sanctification), a trope traditionally chanted responsively by cantor and congregation. Here again we sense the composer’s universalization of the prayer. He called it, “a dialogue between God and Man, the chorus discovering the law of the atom, the stars, the whole universe, the One, He our God.”
The third movement starts with a “silent meditation.” The orchestra alone is heard, allowing the audience a moment to formulate their own thoughts, perhaps as a substitute for the liturgical silent Tefillah . Then the choir, a cappella , quietly intones Yihyu Lerotson , the prayer for acceptance that follows the Tefillah . The composer called this section “a silent meditation which comes in before you take your soul out and look at what it contains.”
A transition leads to the most majestic section of the liturgy—the service in which the Torah is taken from the ark and paraded through the congregation. Bloch’s description is worth quoting in full.
When I read “Lift up your heads, O ye gates and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors and the King of Glory shall come in,” I could not understand what this was about. It mystified, puzzled and worried me. I was in the Swiss mountains at the time; the day was foggy, the fir trees drooped, the landscape was covered with sadness, I could not see the light. Suddenly a wind came up, the clouds in the sky parted and the sun was over everything. I understood. I felt God was within me at that time in lifting up the clouds. We were in a fog, we could not see the Truth, nor understand God and life. But when the clouds lift from out of our mind and life, and our hearts become as a little child, then the Truth will come in as a King of Glory.
The fourth movement was inspired by the ceremony of returning the Torah to the ark. It ends with Ets Chayim Hi , which Bloch called a “peace song.” Indeed, Bloch ends the movement with ten repetitions of the word “sholom.”
The fifth and final movement is the most daring of the Service , and took Bloch the longest to compose. It begins with a recapitulation of the pastoral mood of the opening, after which the cantor and choir sing the Reform “Adoration,” based on the traditional Oleynu prayer. Now for the first time Bloch introduces the English text of the Union Prayer Book, to be recited by the “minister” over the orchestral interlude. Yet this “spoken voice” part is notated with specified pitches and rhythms. The chorus returns (in Hebrew) with the explosive conclusion to the Oleynu prayer. “Then there is a terrible crash, as if suddenly poor, fleshy man thinks of himself, his fears—death.” The minister returns to recite, in English, a prologue to the Mourners’ Kaddish . But in place of the expected Kaddish , the chorus recapitulates the Tsur Yisroel from the end of the first movement. Bloch called this “the supplication of mankind, its cry towards God for help, for an explanation of this sad world—the reason for our suffering.”
After an ominous silence—from very far away—out of time—out of Space — above Time and Space, a kind of collective voice rises, mysteriously— Is it the key—the answer—the explanation? This is the beautiful poem, Adon Olom —a philosophy or metaphysics, which outgrows all creeds, all religions, all Science…
Bloch found himself at an impasse here. How was he to end this great work of his?
When I saw the last small violet in the field, dead, after giving everything it could, I too thought I was never going to finish [my] work. The last twenty-five measures took me two years to write. I wanted something lyrical, a joy for the people. Two years of groping in the darkness it took to deliver the message to the people: the conquering of death, life, suffering with the highest sense and in the highest proportion.
The concluding hymn of the Union Prayer Book ( Eyn Keloheynu did not provide Bloch with the answer he was seeking. In its place, he substituted the hymn that appears in the Reform liturgy as the conclusion for the Sabbath evening service. Adon Olom was his answer. But this was not to be the typical setting of Adon Olom , sung rather mindlessly by the congregation as a strophic hymn. Bloch is probably the only composer who has dared attempt a literal setting of this cosmic poem. This is not functional liturgical music. With dramatic gestures Bloch paints an eerie picture of a world “before any living being was created,” and then a world “after all things shall cease to exist.” He then applies a more comforting brush to “He is my God, my living Redeemer, my comfort in time of sorrow…the LORD is with me, I shall have no fear.”
Then after the orchestra and chorus give this message of faith, hope and courage, we must send people back to their routine of living, cooking, laundry and so on. Thus, the priest gives a benediction, the chorus answers, “Amen,” and they leave.
It is a whole drama in itself. … For fifty minutes I hope it will bring to the souls, minds and hearts of the people, a little more confidence, make them a little more kind and indulgent than they were and bring them peace.
Last year an informal search yielded a startling discovery: Bloch’s Sacred Service had not been performed in concert in Boston since Zamir’s last presentation of the work in 1994. Why isn’t the Sacred Service performed more often? Perhaps its blood is too rich for most synagogues. Perhaps it appears too exotic for most symphonies and choral societies. As we were making plans for our anniversary concert, I knew that the Sacred Service had to be on the program.
For further reading
Bloch, Suzanne and Irene Heskes. Ernest Bloch, Creative Spirit: A Program Source Book . New York: Jewish Music Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board, 1976.
Fromm, Herbert. On Jewish Music . Bloch Publishing Co., 1978.
Kushner, David Z. The Ernest Bloch Companion . Westport, CT: The Greenwood Press, 2002.
Kushner, David Z. “Ernest Bloch, Daniel Gregory Mason and the Jewish Question.” American Music Teacher , 38/6 (June-July, 1989), 16-19.
Knapp, Alexander. “The Jewishness of Bloch: Subconscious or Conscious?”, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association , 97 (1970-71), 99-112.
Móricz, Klára. “Jewish Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Art Music.” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of California, Berkeley, 1999.
Schiller, David Michael. Bloch, Schoenberg, Bernstein: Assimilating Jewish Music . New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Strassburg, Robert. Ernest Bloch . Los Angeles: California State University, 1977.
Zamir Commissions Continue a Musical Tradition
by Rachel King
Over its 36 years of choral performances, the Zamir Chorale of Boston has treated audiences to Jewish music from a spectrum of styles and historical periods, ranging from ancient chants to 20th-century Yiddish theater. Not content simply to feature the gorgeous songs of the past, however, Zamir and founder Joshua Jacobson have also set out to create a new body of Jewish music, by commissioning new works from prominent contemporary composers. By adding more than a dozen new pieces to the Jewish choral repertoire, Zamir ensures the continuity of the very culture it explores.
Zamir’s gala double-chai anniversary concert on June 5, 2005, at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, celebrates this commitment to new music by featuring a selection of the works the group has commissioned since its beginning. Included on the program is the very first piece Zamir commissioned as a brand-new performing group. The year after Jacobson and several friends created the Zamir Chorale of Boston, they commissioned their first work from Jef Labes, a friend of Jacobson’s and fellow counselor during their summers at Camp Yavneh. A pianist who was performing at the time with a blues group in Woodstock, NY (he subsequently went on to play with Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt), Labes was also launching his composing career when Jacobson asked him to compose a new piece for Zamir. Since Labes’ blues group was experimenting with jazz, Labes saw the commission as an opportunity to work within a jazz idiom. “I wanted to set a choral piece in the trappings of jazz, featuring both a jazz waltz section and a swing section for improvisation,” Labes recalls. “I also had a lot of fun playing around with vocal scat lines for a chorus. The text was my own, very Americanized Hebrew!” The resulting composition was “Shir Ahava,” which Zamir premiered in 1970 and reprises in June as a proud nod to its beginnings.
Zamir has also commissioned new works to commemorate the passing of individuals who have played integral roles in the organization. The new works not only honor their memory but ensure them a lasting legacy through music. In November 2003, Zamir premiered Benjie Ellen Schiller’s “Harninu,” which it commissioned in memory of Rick Boyar, longtime percussionist for Zamir who passed away in 2003. Schiller, a former singer with Zamir who is now a prominent cantor and composer in New York made percussion a central element of the piece, and gave it extra depth by including a section for for shofar, an instrument on which Boyar was a virtuoso.
Befitting a momentous occasion, Zamir will perform a world premiere at the anniversary concert: Yehezkel Braun’s “Et Ha-zamir Higgia.” Zamir commissionedthis work to honor the memory of Lou Garber, co-founder of Zamir and a former singer, board member, and dear friend of the organization who passed away in 2002. Joshua Jacobson asked Braun, a prominent Israeli composer whose work Zamir has frequently performed, to compose a tribute to Garber that would be premiered at the June 2005 anniversary concert. Translated as “The time of the singing of birds is come,” Braun’s resulting composition is a setting of three verses from The Song of Songs , scored for five-part choir and piano. “I chose these three verses,” Braun has commented, “as most appropriate for the occasion of celebrating the 3th anniversary of the Zamir Chorale of Boston.” Describing the design of the piece, Braun notes that the piano is as much an actor in the work as the singing voices, and “each vocal part moves along its own path, enjoying a great degree of freedom: there is no one melody with the other voices supplying the ‘accompaniment.'” Honoring Garber’s contributions and Zamir’s accomplishments in a celebratory way, Braun says, “I aimed at giving the impression of a merry spring festival . . .”
The fourth commissioned work on the June 5 program has a fascinating story behind it. In 1977, Zamir premiered a piece it had commissioned from one of America’s most prominent composers, Daniel Pinkham. This piece, entitled The Rainbow, combines chorus, narrator, organ, percussion, and recorded electronic music to tell the story of Noah and God’s covenant with humankind after the flood. But The Rainbow was performed only once. After Zamir’s premiere performance, the tape of the electronic music was lost. When he began planning the 36th gala concert, Josh Jacobson wished to perform this piece again and contacted Pinkham to ask if the composer might revive the electronic music. Pinkham responded that he no longer works in that musical genre, but enthusiastically supported Dennis Miller, one of Boston’s most eminent composers of electronic music, recreating the electronic soundtrack of The Rainbow, based on an archival recording of the 1977 premiere performance.
This electronic music is intended to imitate the shape and shimmer of a rainbow and, together with the chorus, makes an arc of sound. For his composition, Pinkham selected Biblical texts from Genesis, in both English and Hebrew, which describe the rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant with humankind. Throughout the work, the chorus sings in Hebrew, in dialogue with a narrator who recites portions of the text in English. As with all his works, Mr. Pinkham ensured that each word and phrase fits perfectly together with the narration and musical score of the composition. With the revival of The Rainbow , an important work by one of today’s finest composers may be heard again, and Zamir will have the exciting opportunity to restore to its repertoire a piece it commissioned nearly 30 years ago.
The four commissioned works Zamir will perform at the gala concert effectively represent the range of the group’s activities over its 36-year history. Along with Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service on the second half of the concert program, these works demonstrate both the enduring beauty, and the new possibilities, of Jewish choral music.
by Rachel King
As far back as he can remember, Joshua Jacobson has been drawn to music of all kinds. As a very young boy, he clamored to visit a neighbor who owned some Beethoven records, in the hope that he might get to listen to them. His family life was filled with singing, in the car and around the table on Shabbat. But it was an experience at age 10, when he went away to Camp Yavneh for the first time, that opened up a path for him. At the camp, which fostered Zionist expression through song, Jacobson experienced a world that merged music and Jewish identity in a meaningful way. Jacobson spent the next several summers at Yavneh. During that time, he met a charismatic and brilliant music counselor, Stanley Sperber, who was to become his mentor, and later, colleague. Sperber, Jacobson recalls, was “cool,” so the teenager adopted his counselor’s interest in Jewish choral music. “I fell under his spell,” Jacobson says, “and he took me under his wing.” Guided by that wing, Jacobson eventually took flight himself. Visiting Sperber in New York City throughout high school and his undergraduate years at Harvard College, Jacobson was especially excited by the music of New York’s Zamir Chorale, a new ensemble that Sperber was conducting. He was also inspired by Sperber’s teaching to become a music major and to turn his interest in music into a vocation. Then, as Jacobson neared the end of his senior year at Harvard, Sperber approached him with a proposal: would he like to help extend the American Jewish choral movement and start a Zamir Chorale in Boston?
The answer, of course, was yes. Jacobson turned to two friends from Yavneh, Lou Garber and Jerry Halpern, to help him pull together still more campmates and friends—and thus was born, in the fall of 1969, the Zamir Chorale of Boston. The three friends assembled about 40 people who met a sole requirement: a love of singing. At first, the group met once a week at Boston University’s Hillel Housesimply to sing their favorite songs and enjoy camaraderie. As the word of their existence got out, however, Zamir began to receive invitations to perform concerts. In their second season, the group auditioned its singers, but, says Jacobson, “We were still a bunch of college kids who liked to sing.” He, meanwhile, was simultaneously pursuing a Master’s degree at New England Conservatory. Just like his NEC classmates, many of whom were leading local church groups, Jacobson got practical training in choral conducting through his extracurricular association with Zamir. “The choir was my laboratory,” he says, “and we learned, and got better, together.”
Over time, the original, “social nucleus,” of Zamir, as Jacobson puts it, aged, and the demographic of the group changed. As the group grew it required larger rehearsal space—which Zamir found in the suburbs. As a result, the college-age contingent began to fall off. Increasingly, the group attracted older, more experienced and professional singers, who joined the chorus to fulfill their passion for Jewish music and to further their training. In the 1970s, Zamir singers included such individuals as Eliot Vogel, Benjie Ellen Schiller, and Carol Martin, all of whom went on to make their own careers in Jewish music. Pointing to the alumni roster, Jacobson is particularly proud that Zamir has served as a training ground for cantors, rabbis, and educators who have gone on to become leaders in the Jewish community.
Not only has Zamir launched professional careers, but many a lifelong friendship and even marriage has come out of the tight-knit group. Jacobson met his own wife, Ronda, when she was a soprano in the chorus in the early 1970s. Their son, Ben, grew up very much a part of the Zamir family. On both a personal and professional level, Jacobson volunteers that he has learned as much from Zamir and Zamir singers over the years as they have from him. During the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s, Zamir and Jacobson were building a reputation and becoming more in-demand: performing abroad internationally, singing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and many other such honors. Along the way, there were some crazy times.
Joshua Jacobson, 1973 Israel trip
Jacobson recalls a trip to Israel, when Zamir was singing one of the choruses in Aida, under the baton of Zubin Mehta. Jacobson had been chosen to conduct a backstage chorus, following Mehta’s direction on a closed-circuit television. When, to his horror, the screen went blank, Jacobson had to react quickly, positioning himself so that he could peer through a backstage door and conduct at the same time. Despite this nerve-wracking scenario, he remembers the experience fondly: “It was such an honor for a young conductor to have the opportunity to prepare choruses for orchestras and conductors of that stature.”
There are many other accomplishments that Jacobson looks back on with pride, pointing especially to the new works Zamir has commissioned, and to its success in raising awareness among both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities about the breadth of Jewish culture. Yet, even as he looks back with nostalgia, Jacobson is still focused on the future. “There is so much more I want Zamir to do,” he says. “I look forward to more international tours. I would like Zamir to do more educational programming and recording—to develop curriculum guides and educational technology around Jewish music. I would like Zamir to perform more major choral works, which both invigorate the chorus and positively promote the Jewish image. I look forward to a deeper collaboration with Hebrew College—I hope it will become the place you go to study Jewish choral conducting.” So speaks a man not content to rest on his laurels, but who, instead, is full of youthful zeal and enthusiastic plans for the future.
The close connection between conductor and chorus means that Zamir’s 36th “birthday” is Jacobson’s celebration, too. “What does anyone want for their birthday,” he asks, “but to be surrounded by family and friends—and to celebrate with song?” Joshua Jacobson will get his wish on June 5, 2005, when the Zamir family, and its many friends, gather to celebrate the growth of a music group and its leader.
By Stanley Sperber
Zamir’s origins were in Camp Massad, the first of a string of Hebrew summer camps which developed in the U.S. Massad was founded in 1941, and I was already a camper there in the early 1950s. Massad’s two-month summer season was oriented towards Zionist–Orthodox Judaism, and for my parents it was the perfect complement to my education (elementary and high school) at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All the activities were run exclusively in Hebrew so that if, for example, you were in the dining room and asked for the salt instead of using the world “melach” you got nothing for your trouble.
Shlomo Shulsinger (z”l) was the founder and director of Massad (the summer camps were in Pennsylvania), and he went out of his way to bring outstanding young Israeli talents to teach us Israeli culture. Thus, Menachem Golan, the well-known producer and film director was our dramatics counselor; Natan Mishori, longtime Israeli music educator and chief music critic for Haaretz was music counselor; and he was succeeded by the man who was to become the catalyst for Zamir, Yonatan Zak, who went on to have an international career as pianist and accompanist.
It was in the late 1950s that Zak formed the Massad counselors’ choir, which rehearsed in the evenings and sang, of course, exclusively in Hebrew. This activity so captivated us that a handful of New Yorkers decided to continue our choral singing after the summer season, and thus in the fall of 1960, the Massad Choral Group was founded, conducted by yours truly and managed by my lifelong buddy, Charles Kleinhaus. Following a brief power struggle with Mr. Shulsinger over control of the group, we decided to establish an independent ensemble and call ourselves “the Zamir Chorale.” The name was suggested by Moshe Avital, a Massad head counselor who went on to become director of Camp Yavneh, where I served as music counselor and first met a young, talented musician whom I took under my wing. His name was Joshua Jacobson.
Zamir (New York) almost immediately began to flourish beyond our wildest expectations and developed rapidly from a chamber choir of 16 singers to a huge ensemble of over 90. Apparently the choir filled a void of Jewish cultural expression that existed in New York, and college students from the five boroughs flocked to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was an instructor in music history and therefore received permission to use Unterberg Auditorium as a rehearsal space on Sunday evenings. Even thought I was a member of the Columbia College Glee Club, conducting was hardly my specialty at the time, so I joined the Collegiate Chorale (founded by Robert Shaw and conducted by the Israeli Abraham Kaplan) in order to pick up as many pointers as possible on how to direct a vocal ensemble.
I recall that in the early 1960s the Zamir Chorale was invited to travel to MIT to perform at an Israel Independence Day celebration. What stands out in my memory was that following our set of Israeli songs (tunes like Hey Daroma, Garin Katan, Bab-el-wad, and Hava Nagila ), a gentleman came up to me and introduced himself as a MIT music instructor and told me how impressed he was by this young choral group. He asked me if I wanted one piece of professional advice. I said sure, and he said, “when you’re conducting, take your left hand out of your pocket.”
That was a very unsubtle message to me that the time had come to begin my formal conducting studies. To my surprise, I was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music where my choral instructor was the aforementioned Abraham Kaplan (who refused to speak to me in Hebrew), and his assistant was the great John Nelson who is today the Music Director of the Paris Chamber Orchestra and unofficial heir apparent to the legendary Robert Shaw. On the orchestral side, I found myself in a class directed by Maestro Jean Morel (of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New York Metropolitan Opera), and among my fellow students were three Israeli wonder boys: Uri Mayer (now with the Edmonton Symphony), Itzhak Pearlman, and Pinchas Zukerman, as well as Dennis Russell Davies, James Conlon, and Isaiah Jackson—an intimidating group to say the least.
To make a long story short, my left hand quickly emerged from its pocket and Zamir began to establish a reputation in Jewish cultural circles.
In 1966, duringone of our Sunday evening Seminary rehearsals, Aharon Zvi Propes, the founderof the Israel Festival, the International Choral Festival ( Zimriyah ), and International Harp Contest, walked in unannounced, listened to the rehearsal,and told me afterwards that I must bring Zamir to represent the US at the Israeli Zimriyah in July 1967.
Everyone was overjoyed by the invitation, and we soon set our sights on gathering the money for 60 plane tickets to Israel. As fate would have it, less than one month before takeoff, war broke out in the Middle East and we were convinced that all was lost—until we learned that the war was a six-day affair. A few singers dropped out due to a combination of apprehension and parental pressure, but everyone else was raring to go, and we arrived in the midst of the incredible euphoria that was engulfing Israel at the time.
I still recall a few amazing events from this magical two-week tour. The first was the bus trip from Ben-Gurion Airport to our youth hostel in Tel Aviv (which was still being built as we approached it!). Our guide was a young Israeli soldier, who proceeded to sing to us a new song that was rapidly becoming Israel’s second national anthem. It was Naomi Shermer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav . Within a few minutes our whole gang was singing it with her and the following evening we performed it in our first Israeli concert.
A day or two later, we were taken to the Western Wall (the kotel ), which was still being cleared by the Israeli Defense Forces, and we sang Rossi’s Hallelujah there. Next to me stood, glowing with pride, Shlomo Kaplan, who was the music director of the Zimriyah and the father of my Juilliard mentor, Abraham Kaplan. Following our kotel experience, we were transported to sing the first concert at the liberated Mount Scopus—and as we were singing, Israeli security forces were still detonating mine fields in the immediate area.
Following the Zimriyah, we stayed a few extra days to perform Handel’s Saul with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Sergio Comissione. Zamir sang the entire oratorio by memory and in Hebrew! The success of this venture brought about an invitation to appear following the 1970 Zimriyah, this time with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony .
Following our initial trip to Israel, we already had thoughts of spreading the Zamir idea to other cities. Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago were the candidates, with Boston the most obvious choice due to my close ties over the years with Josh Jacobson. It was in 1969 that, following some meetings between the two of us, Josh took upon himself the music directorship of Boston Zamir. We sent some music from our library to help get things started, but very quickly it became obvious that the Boston Nightingale was ready to fly independently and successfully. And so it has for the past 3-1/2 decades.
In closing, an anecdote that took place shortly after I made aliyah in 1972. I was conducting the Jerusalem Chamber Choir in a concert at the Jerusalem Theater. At its conclusion, an elderly woman came backstage, and with obvious emotion asked me to come with her and her husband to their home in Moza, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem. She said she had something very important to show me after having read in the concert program that I was the founder of Zamir. I agreed, and when we sat in their living room, she pulled out a scrap book from Poland from the late 1930s. She proceeded to show me a photo of herself and her husband singing in the original Zamir Chorale, and the conductor’s name was Baruch Sperber! As if that wasn’t enough, she also showed me their concert program and their performance began with Leo Low’s HaZamir, the same piece with which we opened all our Zamir concerts in New York. Baruch Sperber was murdered by the Nazis in the early 1940s, she told me, around the same time that I was born in Brooklyn, NY. There we sat, the representatives of two Zamir Chorales, reunited 30 years later in the holy city of Jerusalem!
STANLEY SPERBER graduated from Columbia University in musicology and from the Julliard School of Music in conducting. In New York he founded the Zamir Chorale and made his Israel Philharmonic Orchestra debut in 1973, a year after immigrating to Israel. He served as the music director of the Holon Chamber Orchestra and the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir, and as the music director and chief conductor of the Rinat National Choir. He also conducted Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at the New Israeli Opera.
Mr. Sperber has toured extensively in Europe and North America. He has conducted the Symphony Orchestra of Baku, Azerbaijan, the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic in Zholin, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra (London), the Budapest Philharmonic, orchestras in Canada and the USA, the Saloniki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra, the Colorado Music Festival, the Estonian Symphony Orchestra, performances of Handel’s “Messiah” in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall with a chorus of 2500 singers, the Sofia Symphony Orchestra, and the Krakow Symphony Orchestra.
Sperber served as music director and chief conductor of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 2000. During that decade, maestro Sperber commissioned numerous world premieres from Israeli composers and was recognized with awards such as the Order of Merit from the Israeli Composers Association (1987) and the National Council for the Arts and Culture Prize for the Performance of Israeli Music (1992).