Raisins with Almonds – a Program of Hope
A preview by Betsy Schwarm
In tumultuous times, music can be the ideal antidote to anxiety. The beauty of the music itself may serve as a soothing balm. Moreover, reflecting upon how that music came to be written and what its composer was seeking to express likely adds depth of meaning to the listening experience, especially when there is text to be sung. Welcome to the world of the Colorado Hebrew Chorale and its sister organization, Kol Nashim, uniting forces for its Raisins with Almonds benefit event on Sunday, January 27!
Many readers will immediately recognize that date as the birthday of Wolfgang Mozart, in this case the 263nd anniversary thereof. There is, however, nothing by the Salzburg Miracle on this program. Others will spot it as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and may suppose that the Colorado Hebrew Chorale and Kol Nashim will be paying tribute to that occasion. Indeed, the Remembrance will serve as backdrop to the program. Nevertheless, the music directors of the two choruses, Carol Kozak Ward and Leah Peer, admit that they first chose the date as one not overly filled with other activities, and thus convenient for audiences. Then, they noticed the significant juxtaposition of dates and made the most of the opportunity.
Leah Peer hastens to point out that the program is not a Holocaust service per se, as that would require the inclusion of several very specific prayers. However, one of those prayers, the Kaddish, will be included, in the exquisite 1914 arrangement by Maurice Ravel. One may encounter the piece in instrumental transcription, though the composer originally wrote it for a Jewish mezzo-soprano for use on her recitals with piano accompaniment. On this occasion, Cantor Asa Fradkin will handle the vocal honors, joined by Travis Yamamoto, pianist for the Colorado Hebrew Chorale.
One other featured soloist will be Estelle Nadel, Chorale member, native of Poland, and a “hidden child” during those dark years of the Holocaust. She’ll take center stage for the lullaby Shlof, Mayn Fegele (Sleep, My Little Bird), to a text by Abraham Goldfaden of Royzhinkes mit Mandeln (Raisins with Almonds) fame; the music is by Mikhail Lermontov, the arrangement by Ryan Nowlin. As part of March of the Living activities for Yom Hashoah, Nadel has visited mass graves in Poland and observes, “It breaks my heart every time to think that those beautiful little children had to die in such a brutal way.” She is often asked to sing lullabies for them, and Shlof, Mayn Fegele is perfect for such an occasion. In it, one finds no brutality, but much serenity and tenderness, in music and text alike.
The Colorado Hebrew Chorale will also offer Michael Skloff’s setting of the liturgical text K’dusha (Sanctification). There, Cantor Fradkin will again take the vocal lead. An additional selection will be the Partizaner-himen (Partizan’s Hymn), in a new arrangement by Benyumin Schaechter. Its closing line, “We are here,” seems an ideal reminder that, even in troubled times, the human spirit endures.
Joining the Colorado Hebrew Chorale for this collaborative program will be the women’s choir Kol Nashim. Two of its offerings on the program are quite new. One, Dream, is a work from 2014 by composer Diane Abdi Robertson setting writings of Abramek Koplowicz. Koplowicz died in Auschwitz at age 14, but left behind inspirational writings in which he dreams of someday seeing the world, from Niagara Falls to Australia’s kangaroos. “How wonderful the world is,” he wrote, a philosophy in which Kol Nashim’s music director, Leah Peer, finds “remarkable emotional fortitude.” This young man could dream, despite living in what, to many, would have seemed a hopeless situation. Robertson’s setting of his words provides the beauty and color that the young man’s imagination deserved.
Newer yet is a work receiving its world premiere with Kol Nashim and written especially for that ensemble by Denver-area composer M. Susan Brown. Brown attests that she had offered to Leah Peer to write something for the group, if Peer might provide a favorite text. Of the suggested verses, Brown was particularly struck by Lamoot Tze’irah. The poem is by Hannah Sennesh, a young Hungarian-born woman who, after emigrating to Mandate Palestine in 1939, volunteered to serve a freedom fighter in Hungary, finally giving her life for the cause. However, Brown found the text to be “brave and unapologetic, and, at the same time, wonderfully meditative.” With some guidance from Peer as to the rhythm and accents of the Hebrew text, she set enthusiastically to work, and says she feels “honored” that Kol Nashim has allowed her to “set this text for them.” At this writing, no one but the chorus and the composer has heard Lamoot Tze’irah; audience members will have that chance January 27.
In selecting music for the program, the two music directors – Carol Kozak Ward of the Colorado Hebrew Chorale and Leah Peer of Kol Nashim – were moved by the idea of, as Peer describes it, “what inspiration we can take from these people and their strength of spirit.” Hateful events appear in the news with frightful frequency, and not just in distant lands. Though often directed against persons of specific heritages, more broadly speaking, they are attacks upon humanity and sympathy in general. Peer observes that music, if not a cure-all, is yet certainly a bridge: “a universal language through which we can learn about the other. It’s harder to hate when there’s familiarity.” That notion stands at the heart of the ensembles’ January 27 program.
The concert will begin at 6:30pm on Sunday, January 27, at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, 3600 South Ivanhoe in Denver. There will also be a reception with wine bar before the concert itself, and a dinner to follow. A silent auction to support the Chorale and Kol Nashim is already in progress. Information about all those events, including pricing and deadlines, is available at the ensembles’ website:
There, one will also find a link through which one can view the silent auction items, which include the beautiful, the delicious, as well as the useful. One might browse through those auction offerings at any time, even while one is still determining if one can attend the concert itself. However, given the excellence of the two ensembles, Colorado Hebrew Chorale and Kol Nashim, as well as the appealing beauties of the musical selections, surely the event deserves to rise to the top of one’s list of priorities.