Shabbat Shira - New Perspectives on Jewish Music

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Friday, January 21, 2011 - 8:00pm
Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA

Click here to listen to the pieces created for and performed at this Shabbat Shira event, celebrating the works of the Helfman fellows.

Comments about Shabbat Shira “Dear VBS family – thank you for helping to make this year’s Shabbat Shira a FANTASTIC night We had over 650 enthusiastic congregants and friends there to support the mission of the choir, the Jewish Music Commission and the new Helfman Institute. It was wonderful working with Cantor Baron, Dr. Braun and Dr. Isaacson, the composers and our fabulous choir, to create and bring to life this beautiful and innovative service. VBS has a long history of supporting Jewish Music - from Cantor Sam Fordis, to Ami Aloni, to Dr. Braun, the Jewish Music Commission and now, The Helfman Institute and our present accomplishments. We know we can’t do what we do without the support of you, our congregation and our Rabbinic leadership. I am proud to be a part of this dynamic community. Your Maestra, Dr. Noreen Green “

“I have now heard many many glowing and touching comments about Friday night. One statement sticks with me. A man whom I respect said, “I will think of synagogue music as what existed before this event, and what exists after.” In other words, this was a watershed moment.” 

“Sometimes the right elements coalesce to form a greater whole, and I certainly think this was the case with our Shabbat Shira. All of your hard work, creativity, patience, and generosity have sparked an explosion of new ideas.

“There are very few times in life when you go somewhere and find magic.”

Dear Friends, The glow of the fabulous experience last night will not fade for a long time. This marvelous achievement was only achieved by much hard work, determination, and a willingness to venture outside the box to reach new possibilities. None of us knew how this would work out and it was spectacular! It was really a great honor and pleasure for me as chairman of the Jewish Music Commission of LA, and as a choir member, to be part of this whole process. I certainly got a lot of recognition last night! My wife, Barbara, commented at the Shabbat dinner at the sense of camaraderie there is among the Fellows. I saw it too, then, and after the evening's program had ended and no one was leaving. Now the challenge is where do we go from here. Once again, congratulations to all. Richard A. Braun, MD Chairman, Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles”

“I join Julie (and, I'm sure the rest of the group) in thanking Dr. Braun for his enthusiastic support and his inspiring words. I'm sure we all slept like happy little babies after the joyous evening of music. Let's keep it going! Bernardo”

“Dear Dr. Braun, I cannot thank you enough for including me in the Helfman Institute. I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in such a wonderful group of Jewish composers. Friday evening was wonderful. Creating a resurgence of interest in Jewish art music is a passion of mine. I am eager to continue working with the Helfman Institute. The current group of Helfman Fellows seems determined to continue making music together. I share that hope. I am also interested in helping with a beginners' group, if there is anything that I might be able to do. I would love to discuss with you some of the possibilities for the future! Again, thank you for everything, Coreen Duffy”

“I just wanted to thank all of my friends and family who were able to attend last night's all musical Shabbat Shira service at Valley Beth Shalom. My 25 colleagues and I created a truly amazing evening of music for the service and the place was packed with wonderful sounds and wonderful people. Hopefully in the near future we'll post some of the pieces for people to see and/or hear, as I heard the event was recorded somehow. All the composers, musicians and the wonderful VBS Choir as well as our leaders, mentors, rabbis and cantors gave their all for this and it showed in every moment of the night. I personally thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I especially thank Cantor Rita Glassman for singing my Kaddish so completely, so humbly, and so truly beautifully. I could not have asked for a better mitzvot. There will be more. In addition, I wrote something to a friend of mine about the evening. I never was able to write about this experience before, so I thought I might share it with you now. Pardon my verbosity! Many thanks! I was so moved by your presence. By everyone's presence, actually. It was something I'll never forget. What great love and friendship from all of you. It was an especially hard piece to write (Kaddish), not knowing Hebrew all that well, and delving into its deeper meaning. Although it's the prayer most associated with mourning, it doesn't mention death at all; rather, the majesty and mystery of God's love. At first and I'm sure you can understand this, i felt like i had no place in this group of really accomplished, educated composers. I felt outclassed, but everyone was so responsive to "a simple prayer" when I presented it at our first retreat that i felt better about being part of it, but still awed by everyone else. When I heard how everyone was progressing, I got really intimidated, but i pushed through and wrote something. The first time I presented it to the group, everyone hated it!! Even me!! I was trying too hard to make some sort of bold, artistic statement and failing miserably. Dr. Isaacson said to me "Michael, what is your midrash for the piece?" Midrash is basically the word for the inner meaning, the subtext of the story. And I said, "one of the last things my Father said to me before he died was 'I want you to say Kaddish for me'., and I've done it by rote every year, but I never knew what it meant. So now, I want to say Kaddish for my Dad and mean it." Dr. Isaacson said, "So, write that." And I did. The next time I presented it, the reaction was a different story, to say the least, and a few weeks ago, when we met as a group for the last time, I came up with this: It's like walking on ice, trying to break through to the heart of the matter. It's hard and unforgiving, but when you chip away the ice, there's the flowing water underneath. Once you get to that, you can flow with it. It's the chipping away the ice that's the chore. Sometimes you've got to melt the ice instead and then just dive in. And Cantor Glassman told me she wanted to mirror what i did when I presented the version that you heard last night, so I asked for no vibrato, pure tones, like a child, and an insistent urgency to the litany at the end. She did all that. It was a marvelous performance. I can hardly wait to hear the recording they did. Thank you again. Please tell everyone how much I was moved by you! I have no words to express it. Only Thank You. Michael Silvesher”

“This is beautiful Michael, as is your Kaddish. Michael Gill” “DICK & CANTOR BARON WHAT A SPLENDID EVENING! You are a gift. Thank you. Shabbat Shalom, with love, Perryne”

Dick and Cantor Baron, Shabbat Shalom. Natalie and I just want to say “Thank You, Congratulations and Mazal Tov.” What a spectacular Shabbat Service. It was s beautiful, and the fact that you wee able to have a different musical piece for each prayer – well, that was not expected. What a perfectly planned and perfectly successful endeavor. memory we certainly have to cherish. Yasher Koach. Pat Kater”

“Michael, I hope you feel very fulfilled after last night! It was so refreshing to hear all those liturgical pieces re-midrashed. And I appreciated the Mi Chamocha in 7 in real time ...especially the fact that you included the English. Felt like Debbie was in the room.. I'd be interested to know what the process was that you used with the composers, to introduce them to the liturgy itself...and to explain how to make their own midrash. Shabbat Shalom, Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom” Remarks by Dr. Michael Isaacson: "Shabbat Shalom everyone. Isn’t this a glorious evening? For many years the Jewish Music Commission under the dedicated leadership of Dr. Richard Braun has brought quality programs of Jewish music to VBS and the larger Southern Californian landscape. I have been honored to serve on the advisory board of the Commission for over thirty years and have personally witnessed the remarkable job that Dick has done for the congregation and the Jewish community at large. Through his leadership, the Commission has sponsored festivals of new Jewish music, popular song competitions, and unforgettable evenings of Jewish chamber music, art song, and opera as well. Let me share a bit about the process that led to this evening’s new music. The Commission’s board initially thought that creative participants with a full Jewish heart and a modicum of talent could create memorable Jewish music for today’s congregations. The results of this philosophy were competitions where prizes were awarded for works that were good but not great. Tonight we continue to learn from Rabbi Feinstein who continually teaches that the future of Jewry is in the encouragement and realization of big Jewish ideas. Ones we can embrace and support with a full heart; the kind that attracts unaffiliated Jews back into the synagogue - The Max Helfman Institute is just that kind of big Jewish idea. Thanks to the creative vision of Cantor Phil Baron, the Jewish Music Commission changed its strategy and then asked “What if we identify mature, experienced Jewish composers in the community who, at the present are not composing for the synagogue but have demonstrated an advanced skill in writing music, and then create a group where they could learn more about their Jewishness through studying the meaning of holidays, prayers, scripture, and life cycle celebrations. Wouldn’t that create better musical results? Last February Cantor Phil Baron, who shared our dream and envisioned the leadership role that he could directly play, enabled our dream to become a reality. Phil invited a group of working composers in town who actually make their living from writing music for television, film, and other media to join us for a two day retreat at the American Jewish University’s campus at the Brandeis-Bardin grounds in Simi Valley. There Rabbi Feinstein, Cantor Baron, other teachers and I spoke to this group and gave them an overview of what the synagogue’s musical needs are today and the opportunities that are just waiting for the enterprising Jewish composer to take full advantage of by fulfilling these needs. MHI Talk P. 2 When the group returned to Los Angeles we met on a monthly basis here at VBS and at Cantor Baron’s home and studied Psalms, liturgy, heard lectures by noted authors and began musically setting texts in a class situation where the music was sight-read, discussed and critically assessed. With egos left at the door, each member of the group began to grow under this tautly analytic, yet nurturing care. The results of this cultural proactivism have been phenomenal. Tonight we are listening and worshipping to twenty-five new works of Jewish music for Shabbat that have been composed and produced by our Max Helfman Institute Fellows. The Jewish Music Commission now knows that this strategy works…accomplished musicians first, inquiring Jews second…and ultimately enlightened, knowledgeable Jewish composers. I know you all share my enthusiasm when I say that the creativity in prayer settings this evening has been remarkable by this chevre, which we proudly name in honor of synagogue composer Max Helfman zichrono l’vracha. Max dreamt this dream at the Brandeis Arts Institute sixty years ago and re-inspires the same big Jewish idea in us this evening as well. We have made and continue to make Jewish musical history here at VBS and as our friend and partner we ask your help in continuing this endeavor for the coming year. Come help us develop this big Jewish idea to an even greater extent. If you have been enjoying this evening as much as we have and believe in what we have begun to do, won’t you please contribute to the Jewish Music Commission's work by writing a generous check after Shabbat to the Jewish Music Commission here at VBS and furthering the goals of Dr. Richard Braun, Cantor Phil Baron, Dr. Noreen Green and the Max Helfman Institute? Your contribution is, of course, tax deductible and you will feel like a million dollars when you help encourage the wide base of professional Jewish creativity in Los Angeles and all throughout America that is just longing for an opportunity to shine. Just as important, please support musical programming here at VBS and throughout the Jewish community by attending events like this and being public relation cheerleaders for the power of Jewish music in its most elevated forms. With gratitude to Cantor Baron, Maestra Green and Chris Hardin for all their diligence in preparing this service, we will now listen to some works that musically set other parts of our weekly liturgy. We are proud of all our Max Helfman Institute Fellows and Thank you for your invaluable help in creating and sustaining this big Jewish idea. Along with the Jewish Commission of Los Angeles we invite you to assume proud responsibility for the musical future of our people. This is a big Jewish idea that can only grow brighter and stronger with your belief and support. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom." Dear Helfman Friends, Back home in thawing-out Boulder, CO (the mercury hit -20 last week), I’ve often found myself at a failure for words upon describing our recent Shabbat Shira to friends and colleagues. After exhausting so many most sincere- and utterly true- superlatives, I return to a simple feeling: how fortunate I am to be in the company of such fine human beings and exceptional composers. My ears and eyes are awakened to the infinite possibilities of expression contained in our sacred texts; even as I feel called –in order to write music with feeling and authenticity- to further in my own practice as a Jew and relationship with the texts and traditions. So thanks to each one of you, thanks to Phil, Michael, Dr. Braun, the musicians, and especially to Noreen, who took it all on so superbly. I am as turned on as ever for writing to liturgy. I intend to participate as well as possible from afar, attend retreats as much as possible, Skype in lots, and perhaps (there are Jewish composers this side of the continental divide!) help head up a mountain-states faction…hey Michael, maybe we fly you this way for a weekend? Blessings Sheldon Sands


The PDF of the entire program is uploaded below.

Click on an image to see a bigger version.

Photo of Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles
Photo of Jewish Community Foundation
Photo of Max Helfman
Photo of Dr. Noreen Green
Photo of Cantor Phil Baron