Women’s Voices and a Very Good Cause:  Kol Nashim

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

Founded in 2013, Kol Nashim is an all-women’s chorus affiliated with the Colorado Hebrew Chorale.  The chorus’ name is a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘women’s voice.’  It’s a reference to the personnel, though often featured composers as well, and, in the case of the chorus’ program scheduled for the evening of May 23, it also relates to the cause the concert will support. 

Kol Nashim Chorus

Like previous Woman to Woman events, it will benefit the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women.  Why not a local shelter?  In fact, the chorus is the primary presenter and organizer for the biennial “Sing Out for SafeHouse,” supporting an organization founded in Denver in 1977.  However, the Israel connection is strong.  After all, Kol Nashim’s link to the Colorado Hebrew Chorale underscores its cultural link to Jerusalem.  Moreover, Kol Nashim’s founder and conductor, Leah Peer, recalls a specific experience: “I was visiting my mother in Israel when we happened to bump into Naomi Schneiderman, who is the director of the Shelter, as we were strolling down a street in downtown Jerusalem, WHILE I was talking with my mom about wanting to have our concerts benefit an issue connected to women. It seemed like ‘bashert’ (Yiddish for something that was predestined) that our first concert be a benefit on their behalf.”

Leah Peer

In Peer’s words, “The connection to Israel resonated with both our audience, and grant makers.”  Ten years later, the biennial spring programs continue.  That admirable longevity is the product not only of a highly worthy cause, but also an acknowledgement of the excellence of the music – both in its performance quality and in its programming.  Credit there lies with Peer: “I always have our dual mission of presenting Jewish music on the one hand, and expressing women’s life experiences on the other, at the back of my mind while selecting repertoire.” 

This year’s Woman to Woman event is built like a Bach cantata:  voices with or without instrumental support presenting a series of interconnected scenes.  The intention is to explore chapters of a woman’s life, though these are also chapters that men may experience. Here, however, the language is somewhat feminized.  It is music for all, and also music of extraordinary loveliness and often power.  About half the program will be sung in Hebrew, the remainder in English.  Whether or not one is intimately familiar with the language of the moment, one can readily sense the moods through the musical colors. 

Ten different pieces are included in Woman to Woman, all but the a cappella closing selection including piano accompaniment. The program begins with 20th century cellist Pablo Casals’ Nigra Sum, setting a text from the ancient Song of Songs.  “Rise up, fair one!  Come away, my love!”  Even sung in Leah Peer’s Hebrew translation, it’s a smiling way to open the door to the program, particularly to its introductory portion of the program, on the theme of Youth.

Naomi Shemer

The second portion, contemplating the theme of Making Adult Choices, might seem to suggest potential for grown-up sobriety.  However, Nurit Hirsch’s El Haderech (On the Road) reflects on the greater strength that comes with being together.  Its bright and spirited energy might tempt a longing to leap to one’s feet and begin dancing to the flow of the music.

Themes of Loss and Hope follow, though not always accompanied by tears and grief.  Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (If Only) is a hopeful plea to greater powers.  “May it be, all we ask for, may it be.”  The musical setting is one of quiet assuredness, rather than agonized pleading. Here, the music Peer has chosen is focused upon hope, rather than ominous loss.

David Wohl

The last chapter of Kol Nashim’s Woman to Woman journey turns to the notion of Surviving with Strength, and includes Fort Collins composer David Wohl’s The Valley Awakens, written in 2020 especially for Kol Nashim.  It draws upon a Hebrew verse, “Etz Chayim Hi” (It is a Tree of Life) with English lines relating to that tree, its intertwined branches and roots helping to hold the earth together.  In Wohl’s setting (text by Israeli translator and poet, Joanna Chen), vocal lines become as interwoven as the branches themselves.  Surviving with strength, it seems, might work best with branches and roots of society working together to provide that strength.

Leah Peer and Nili Abrahamson

Woman to Woman includes two works by Nili Abrahamsson, a Denver-area composer, though also pianist for Kol Nashim.  Placed near the beginning of the program, her Veshuv (And Again) reflects upon lost love.   Abrahamsson attests that she used “a major key to try to make it more wistful and contemplative rather than bleak and in an attempt to bring out the universality of loss as our human condition.”  Infused more with sighs than sobs, Veshuv is beautifully suited to the women’s voices of Kol Nashim and appears early enough in the ‘Woman to Woman’ program to prepare listeners for what Peer calls the “emotional journey” that will follow

Abrahamsson also composed the closing selection, her a cappella Oseh Shalom (Grantor of Peace).  As the ancient prayer would run in English, “May the grantor of peace in His heavens grant peace to us and all people.” Peer observes, “It is a Jewish tradition to end with a blessing, and what better blessing can we ask for than the hope for peace?” 

Kol Nashim’s Woman to Woman program will be given Tuesday, May 23, 7pm to 9pm, at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, 3600 South Ivanhoe, in southeast Denver.  Although it is a live, in-person event, livestream tickets are also available (live only:  not for later viewing).   Here is the ticket link:

As the event is a benefit for the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women, there is not a single specific ticket price.  Rather, attendees (whether live or online) are encouraged to name the amount they would like to pay, the better to support the shelter. 

Of the social cause, Peer observes, “Domestic violence is an issue that we don’t want to talk about. Using music to bring the message softens the blow.”  Music might not be able to fully eliminate the problem, but to enjoy a musical program while also doing good is an admirable opportunity.v

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