Blochs Jewish choral work opens symphony season

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Ernest Bloch's "Sacred Service" (Avodath Hakodesh), a 1933 choral work commissioned by the Warburg family of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, will open the 1996 season of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

Conducted by music director Michael Morgan, the work will be performed in its original Ashkenazi Hebrew, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10 at Oakland's Paramount Theatre.

The event, which is co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, will feature the Oakland Symphony Chorus led by music director Magen Solomon and augmented by members of Bay Area Jewish choirs.

"The Oakland East Bay Symphony has a longstanding history of celebrating the cultural diversity of the area," says federation Women's Division director Lynn Simon. "We're delighted that they've chosen to open their season by showcasing this wonderful piece of Jewish liturgical music and are proud to co-sponsor this event."

Cantor Cory Winter of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco will make his debut with the Oakland East Bay Symphony as baritone soloist.

"Of any piece of liturgical music, `Sacred Service' is the pinnacle because of the quality of its composer and [because] it represents the first time that a Jewish composer lavished the same care on a Jewish Shabbat service as Christians have done for centuries with the text of the Mass," says Winter, who is president of the Northern California Board of Cantors.

Lucienne Bloch Dimitroff, the daughter of the composer, will attend the concert. An artist in her own right, Dimitroff says her father's music is unusual because "he wasn't himself religious, but he had Judaism in his blood and was able to write beautiful, spiritual music."

Bloch, who was born in Geneva, came to the United States in 1916. In 1925, he became director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Local Cantor Reuben Rinder persuaded the Warburg family to commission Bloch to write a Sabbath morning service for $10,000.

In 1929, before writing a single note of music, Bloch devoted an entire year to studying the Sabbath morning prayers in The Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship. When he completed the work, he wrote: "I have now memorized entirely the whole service in Hebrew. I know its significance word by word…but what is more important, I have absorbed it to the point that it has become mine and as if it were the very expression of my soul."

The service, he wrote, "far surpasses a Hebrew service now. It has become a cosmic poem, a glorification of the Laws of the Universe…It has become a private affair between God and me."

Morgan suggested the Bloch piece. Lloyd Silver, president of the symphony's board of directors and a former federation board member, invited the federation to become involved. The federation sent a letter to East Bay congregations inviting Jewish singers to participate in the chorus.

The goal of the concert "is to do something that appeals to the general public which has special significance for the Jewish community," says Silver. "Music is a means of bringing people together and a form of discussing more global issues. The symphony understands that."

Morgan agrees. "Our goal is to play all kinds of music, and see every religious and ethnic group, race and sex, represented in the programming at some point. We want to give everyone their turn because there are valuable lessons…for all."

Among the singers who joined the symphony chorus just to sing Bloch's work is Don Stone, a member of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue.

"When I was 12 and a soprano in an Episcopal boys' choir. I fell in love with sacred music. Many years later I married a Jew, began to observe Shabbat and enjoyed singing with our chavurah [prayer and study group]," he says.

"I was still nostalgic for the musical immersion of my former choir and college glee club. This is my first experience singing Hebrew in a chorus and I'm loving it.

"In the early rehearsals the intensity of singing in this very focused group is beginning to overlap with the intensity of the text of the prayers," he adds.

The evening's performance will also include the Bay Area premiere of contemporary composer Jack Perla's "Luminarium" and the performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98.