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The Great Concert

I sit on Lufthansa flight #424 from Münich to Boston, and I am surrounded by fellow Zamirniks on the right and left. We are all coming down from the intense high we’ve been riding the past five days, with a combination of sadness, fatigue, and relief. As we await take-off, a movie reel plays through my head. I feel like I’m spinning. Five days? That’s all? Five days can change an entire lifetime.

I don’t know any way to process the random disorganized thoughts in my head except to just write and see where my pen takes me. The flight is eight hours, twenty-five minutes. So here we go.

An overview: The Louis Lewandowski Festival. Eight choirs, four continents. Jews from Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Zurich, Switzerland; Strasbourg, France; Johannesburg, South Africa; Jerusalem, Israel; London, Britain, UK; Toronto, Canada; Berlin, Germany. All for a common purpose – to honor the memory, and the music, of a great maestro.

My brain wants to work backwards, so let’s process the end first. Last night, we sang an extraordinary concert at the Rykestrasse Synagoge. All the choirs together, surrounding our audience, opened the concert with Lewandowski’s Mah Tovu and closed the concert with his stunning Adon Olam. In the cathedral-like hall, the forte produced by about 250 singers together was enough to wake the long-deceased composer with a smile on his face; but the piano — there is nothing so spiritual as 250 singers singing softly together.

Each of the eight choirs got up to sing two of Lewandowski’s compositions, and it was clear that there was a range of styles, interpretations, and proficiency. Three of the eight choirs were all-male choirs, and I experienced that harmonies sound different whether sung by male and female singers in a broader span of octaves than they do with only male voices. In all-male choirs the harmonies are closer together, which is a mixed blessing. They are particularly beautiful when in tune, but particularly jarring when one part (even just one voice) is out of line; and if the blend is not one of unified vowels and tone, the harmonies — composed and accidental — are much more exposed. Without harping on the issue of too much I will say this: given who the chorus members of Zamir are, and our varying levels of talent, I am suddenly much more appreciative of our conductor and his amazing ability to interpret the music we sing and to keep us united in our sound.


The concert itself was glorious. The fact that each choir had to sing Lewandowski’s pieces, and that there were sixteen pieces on the program, meant that we were pushed to find lesser-known compositions to sing. Zamir was privileged to sing Lewandowski’s Enosh and his German-language composition of Psalm 36, “Ewiger”.

The transition for the performing between these two pieces was a difficult one. Enosh is a serious piece in C-minor, emotionally intense and demanding of focus and precision. Its dynamic range is broad and its melody haunting. Psalm 36, while no less demanding of precision, is a sweet piece in Enosh‘s relative major (E-flat), which talks of God’s glory and His kindness to all worldly beings. As a performer, the transition into major here is a breath of fresh air, and feels like a heavy burden lifting off of our shoulders. It is a quick change, as if a thick grey fog suddenly dissipates under a ray of bright sunshine. Yes, God, we know that You can give life and You can take it away. Life is fleeting, mortality is undefeatable, infinite; but the Glory of God and His kindness are likewise immeasurable (unermesslichen) and everlasting. What an amazing message, an amazing choice of repertoire. Thanks go specifically to our conductor for that one.

What a beautiful evening it was. We were privileged to perform this German synagogue music in the context for which it was specifically composed! Transported through time and space, we brought this great synagogue to vivacious life with our voices; the organists reinvigorated the hollow pipes of the Rykestrasse organ. Yes, it is used regularly for services; but a full house? Concert synagogue music? Non-Jews and Jews alike in the audience, and on the staff? We are incredibly blessed.

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