Sonoma choir brings Maccabee tale to life

In December, the air is filled with music — like "The Nutcracker Suite" and Handel's "Messiah."

"The Magnificent Maccabee" may change that.

"This is something completely different," said Sonia Tubridy, director of River Choir, which will perform the Chanukah cantata tomorrow through Sunday, Dec.12 at two synagogues and two churches in Sonoma County.

This cantata, written for instruments and choir is a historical narration set to music. It describes how Jews lived at the time of the Maccabees, tells the Chanukah story and introduces the Maccabee family. The "magnificent" Maccabee is Judah, the hero of the story.

"There is a battle scene with Antiochus' armies; Hannah sings about her seven sons; a mother sings a lullaby to her son while they are in hiding in the mountains. And the end begs for a hora," she said.

In addition, a klezmer band will play before the hour-long cantata and will strike up again afterward for dancing.

Tubridy founded the River Choir in 1977. It performs medieval to contemporary classical music — "early music, madrigals mostly." The Sonoma County-based choir occasionally performs Jewish music.

The Chanukah cantata includes "a mixture of all styles of music with a somewhat Jewish theme," backed up by piano, trombone, French horn, clarinet, trumpet and accordion, she said. "It's very uplifting and exhilarating." It includes narration, instrumental passages, solos, duets and choral numbers.

If a Chanukah cantata is unusual, so is its composer. The late Sonny Vale composed everything from labor songs in the 1930s to pop tunes for Elvis Presley.

Vale, who started writing the piece in the 1950s, based his composition on Howard Fast's novel about the Maccabees, "My Glorious Brothers."

His passion for the labor movement apparently influenced the cantata.

"It's all about hope for freedom and belief that life will be better when people come together," Tubridy said. "It's not so far from labor songs."

Despite the power of the piece, it is not widely known because it has never been published or recorded. Vale died in 1991 at the age of 77 while working on a recording.

The music reached the North Bay, however, because his widow's brother and sister-in-law, Alby and Wallie Kass, live there and sing in the choir.

Tubridy actually performed an abridged version of the cantata about 12 years ago when she was directing Santa Rosa Congregation Beth Ami's chorus.

The River Choir started working on the piece in July. Without a recording and with only a handwritten score, it hasn't been easy.

Still, Tubridy said, "it's a lot of fun to sing."

The choir will record the performance and issue a CD. The hope is to bring the music to a wider audience.

Tubridy's interest in the cantata isn't accidental.

She lived in Israel for 15 years and attended the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. She co-founded the Coffee Concert Music series and directs the Russian River Children's Chorus. She teaches Hebrew and chairs the Russian River Jewish Community. Tubridy also sings with a klezmer group.

As a child in New York in the 1950s, she belonged to a Zionist group.

"To me, this [cantata] evokes those years, those times," she said. "The exuberance. To anyone involved in those organizations during that period, this will ring a bell — loud and strong."

The River Choir will perform "The Magnificent Maccabee" at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Congregation Beth Ami, 4676 Mayette Ave., Santa Rosa; at 4 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Ner Shalom, 85 La Plaza, Cotati; at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Guerneville Community Church, 14520 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12. at the Sebastopol Methodist Church, 500 North Main St., Sebastopol. Tickets: $6, $3 for children. Information: (707) 869-0516.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.