Chorus will perform works by converted monk, camp inmate

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, talking of folk melodies, once said, "A song is created when the spirit leaps up."

Throughout the centuries — and especially during times of poverty and oppression — Jews have raised their spirits with folk songs that speak of hope, truth and the redemptive power of love.

Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish folk songs will punctuate three June concerts by the East Bay chamber chorus Sacred and Profane. Titled "Shtetl, Synagogue, Sepharad," the three-part series — Sacred and Profane's first all-Jewish program — will celebrate Judaism's rich musical traditions, showcasing pieces that range from medieval to modern, from Israel to the diaspora.

"Jews living in different places in the world have written music that came out of not only their era, but also their location," says Susan Swerdlow, director of the 23-member chorus, which is now in its 16th season. "That's what gives rise to the breadth" of the upcoming program, which will be performed almost entirely a cappella.

Among many folk works presented in the Berkeley and Oakland concerts will be "Ayalath Hhein," a wedding song based on a text by the 17th-century Yemenite poet Rabbi Shalem Shabazi. The chorus will also perform a lively arrangement of the Hebrew song "Hiney Mah Tov," a well-known tune celebrating comradeship.

Shifting moods mid-program, the group will offer a set of haunting, rarely performed pieces composed at the concentration camp Theriesenstadt by inmate Viktor Ullmann, who was a prominent composer.

Ullmann, descended from Austrian nobility, had Jewish roots on his mother's side but did not consider himself Jewish until the Nazis arrested him. He arranged songs for choral ensembles at Theriesenstadt, which the Germans fashioned into a "model" camp and invited the world to visit, hoping to prove that life inside was tolerable and humane. Ullmann ultimately died at the camp.

The pieces he wrote at Theriesenstadt "capture a real poignancy and bitterness," says Swerdlow, who is Jewish. His music "grabs me. It makes me very moved and sad."

Gideon Klein, another Czech composer interned at Theriesenstadt, worked with Ullmann to organize the camp's cultural life, and himself composed numerous vocal works. Sacred and Profane will perform Klein's "Madrigal," which is based on a poem of quiet despair by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin.

Backtracking through musical history, the chorus will perform a number of 19th-century liturgical works including "Tov Lehodos," the only Hebrew text Viennese composer Franz Schubert ever set to music. Other pieces dating from that period are a rousing four-part "Hallelujah" by Louis Lewandowski, choirmaster of Berlin's Jewish community,and a version of the prayer "Hashkiveinu" by David Nowakowski, who was choirmaster and composer at Odessa's well-known Brody synagogue for more than 50 years.

Several pieces on the Sacred and Profane program date back quite a bit further. "Mi Al Har Chorev" was penned by Ovadyah HaGer, a Norman monk who converted to Judaism in 1102. A musical adaptation of a panegyric to Moses written by 12th-century religious poet Amr Ibn Sahal, HaGer's piece is the oldest extant piece of notated Jewish music.

Swerdlow became Sacred and Profane's director in 1992. Since then, the group's mostly a capella programs have featured Hispanic music from Spain and Puerto Rico, as well as works by women composers and segments of the opera "The Immortal Hour."

The chorus performed the latter in collaboration with the Berkeley Opera.

For its 1994 winter holiday concert, the group sang a Kaddish by early 17th century Italian Jewish composer Salomone Rossi, the leading musician at the court of Mantua.

Sacred and Profane's three upcoming concerts will feature three motets from Rossi's 33-song volume "HaShirim Asher Li Shlomo," which was published in 1622.

Perusing sheet music for the diverse works the group will perform in these concerts, Swerdlow says, "Some people are going to be amazed to know that all this music is Jewish."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.