I managed to pull myself together before we walked out and began to sing. Cantor Lauren Bandman, who is fluent in Italian, introduced our program beautifully and we began our concert with Shalom Aleichem of Sharlin. I noticed that the Monsignor of this basilica was sitting in the front row. When the concert began, he looked like he was attending one of the many concerts that he is required to attend for his job. He was listening politely, but didn’t seem particularly engaged. The three highest level officials to make it to our concert were this man, the American Ambassador to the Vatican, and the vice chair of the Italian office on interreligious issues. I wanted this to touch them, to not be just another concert. Would we succeed?
The second piece was Hinei Mah Tov by Sulzer. It was at this point that we heard the organ for the first time… while singing! It was lovely, as was the piece. If you haven’t heard this piece, you should try to find a recording. It really sounds like it was written to be sung in a Cathedral. It has a High Church kind of sound and it was lovely. Cantor Jonathan Grant sang the solo with delicate grace. Delicious! About 20 seconds after we finished the last note, the sound finally died. During that time it just reverberated around and around the Basilica. This can be lovely, or it can sound like mud. In this case, it was lovely.
The third and fourth pieces were Adon Olam of Salomone Rossi (Cantor Lori Corrsin, soloist) and Etz Chayim of Naumbourg (Cantor Todd Kipnis, soloist) These were done in a smaller chorale, so I got to sit for a moment and just soak it in. Lovely!
The fifth piece shifted the style to give our audience a taste of the chassidic sound – Charles Davidson’s L’cha Dodi. I think I caught the Monsignor crack a slight smile. Did I see him moving a little to the music? I’m not quite sure… This was a tough piece to perform effectively in such an echoey space, but with Cantor Barak’s joyful and animated conducting, I think we actually pulled it off! The soloists were Cantors Gail Hirschenfang, Tracey Scher, Peter Halpern, and Richard Cohn.
Next we sang Modim / V’al Kulam. The soloist for Modim was Cantor David Berger. The words just dripped from his mouth like honey! The piece segued into V’al Kulam with Cantors Lauren Bandman and Nancy Kassel taking the lead. It was so delicate, so sweet. Exquisite.
Sim Shalom of Janowski, with Cantor Roz Barak chanting the solo was, for me, a show stopper. You should have heard the echo at the close of the final chord! It was magic.
Throughout the program, different Cantors got up to announce some of the pieces and explain their liturgical context. It was now my turn to discuss the next two selections, Yihyu L’ratzon and Elohai N’tzor. Here is what I said:
The central section of the prayer service concludes with our most important prayer, the prayer for peace, which you just heard. It is at this point in our worship that we turn our thoughts to G-d individually, rather than collectively.
Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. At its best, prayer is a perfect blend of the two – the mouth reciting the keva while, inspired by the text, the mind and heart add the personal dimension, the kavannah to the rich written word. After the communal prayer for peace, then, we have a moment for pure kavannah – pure intention – personal prayer. Following that we recite the words of this next prayer, “yihyu l’ratzon.” The translation of this short prayer is, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, oh G-d, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
The song that follows in tonight’s program, “Elohai N’tzor,” is an example of a personal prayer that was provided to us by our Rabbis, and then written into the prayerbook as a meditation. In it, we pray that we will speak well of others and remain silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all, and that our hearts will always be open to Torah. The prayer concludes with the same words as the yihyu l’ratzon prayer that I just discussed.
This text is almost never sung aloud. The modern composition that we will perform for you is a lovely meditation on this text.
Yihyu L’ratzon by Bloch was haunting in this space. There is no other word to describe it. Cantor Richard Cohn, as conductor, brought out every nuance of sound, every crescendo, every dynamic change. Stunning.
Elohai N’tzor of Danny Maseng was the next piece. I was part of a wonderful trio for this one (along with Cantors Susan Caro and Rosalie Boxt and David Berger on guitar) and had the honor of a solo at the end. The music was accompanied by guitar. I was very concerned that this would fall quite flat in the space, but it really didn’t. It was a little delicate gem in the middle of the program.
There were 17 pieces in the concert, in addition to an encore, so I won’t describe all of them. I will post a copy of the program when I return home and can scan it into the computer. I will let you know, though, that I had the honor of a second solo in the Braun V’ahavtah.
I also want to tell you about another special moment in the concert: the world premiere of a piece written just for this event: Eric Contzius’s Mah Ashiv L’Adonai (Psalm 116). The piece was written in a mixture of Hebrew and Latin and was an amazing blend of styles from gregorian chant through a more modern Jewish sound. It is gorgeous! One of my favorite pieces in the entire program. We had to wait (a LONG time) to start the piece because an ambulance was passing by outside and making QUITE a racket! It was well worth the wait! We could have been a little more together during the first few notes of the piece, but otherwise it was really special. I am hoping to do the piece again in collaboration with some church choirs. Congratulations to Cantor Erik Contzius on a true masterpiece!
The closing number of the concert was Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller’s Hall’lu – complete with guitar and tof! After our standing ovation, we did the Lewandowski Halleluyah as an encore. The audience loved it. They applauded for quite a long time. I almost wished we had another encore planned!
Now, music aside, I want to tell you the moment that I knew that our concert had “worked.” Remember when I told you about the Monsignor? Well, towards the last couple of pieces in the concert, he took out his own personal camera and started snapping pictures. He would not have bothered documenting this day if he hadn’t been effected by it. Right?
What did I think?
We did it.
This is me standing with Monsignor Renzo Giuliano after the concert.