Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Just a Song at Twilight

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go.Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,Still to us at twilight comes love's old song,Comes love's old sweet song.”(Chorus of “Love’s Old Sweet Song,”Lyrics by J. Clifton Bingham, Music by James L. Molloy, 1884)
If someone were to ask me (I can’t imagine why anybody would, but you never know) to select a dozen or so of the most memorable moments in my life, I would certainly include the evening I performed at Carnegie Hall. Of course, I wasn’t alone: in 1957-1958, I was a baritone in the NYC All-City High School Chorus, and together with the All City High School Orchestra, we were performing at the annual concert for assembled family, friends, and assorted music lovers. My musical career was relatively brief. Two and a half years before, I had just transferred from The Bronx H.S. of Science to DeWitt Clinton H.S. On my first or second day there, I ran into my dear friend Al in the hallway. When he realized that I had study hall the second period, he suggested that I join the school chorus, which met at the same time. I had spent the previous three years valiantly but painfully struggling with a clarinet as part of the J.H.S. 80 orchestra. Singing came a lot easier, my vocal chords being more reliable than the reed instrument that had bedeviled and humiliated me these previous years. So I climbed the stairs to the music room in the Tower, met Mr. Dycke, and was immediately accepted into the chorus. (If you are interested, “chorus” is defined on dictionary.com as “a group of persons singing in unison”; “choir” is defined as “a company of singers”; “glee club” is defined as “a chorus organized for singing choral music.” I hope this clears things up.)
For two and a half years, I had the opportunity of singing in the Clinton chorus, loving every minute of it. Mr. Dycke truly appreciated me, not because I was the best singer – I certainly wasn’t – but because I loved music and I was full of enthusiasm. In my senior year, he encouraged me to audition for the All-City Chorus, a highly regarded musical group led by the estimable Peter J. Wilhousky, who, among other activities, had been the chorus master for a number of recordings of Verdi operas which Arturo Toscanini made in the late 1940’s. (I am not even going to entertain the notion that anyone reading this does not know who Arturo Toscanini was.) This being an elite group of singers, there was a real audition. Each of the bass and baritone auditioners came up, one by one, and sang to our pianist Harry Hurwitz the refrain from “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” chosen because of its exquisite simplicity and diabolical vocal difficulty. By the time you hit the high note for the second “twilight,” any musician will know if you can sing or not. I hit the note squarely (I had been practicing all morning) and Mr. Dycke recommended me; so I got in.
We were expected to arrive for rehearsal ever Saturday morning (this was years before I even heard of the concept “shomer Shabbat”) for about six months. The musical arrangements were much more complex, and hence more interesting, than what we were doing at DeWitt Clinton. We spent months learning our music, at first each section separately, and only much later with the full chorus. I still remember the sense of recognition when I could hear and understand how the harmony which the bass and baritone parts provided fit into the whole, grounding the melodies sung by the tenors and sopranos. After a lot of struggling, we were ready to perform our concert. I can’t say that after all these years I can remember much of the music we sang, except for the sentimental “Madame Jeanette,” then a staple of the choral repertoire – Mr. Dycke had a simpler version for the Clintonites. Every concert which the All-City Chorus performed ended with this haunting chestnut (composed by Alan Murray): “Madame Jeanette when the sun goes down, Sits at her door in the rush of the town; Waiting for someone each close of the day, Someone who fell at St. Pierre, they say…….” There were always many alumni sitting in the hall, and they were invited to come up and join in; so there would be hundreds of singers young and old on stage, somehow remembering the music and the lyrics about a French woman who was growing old, waiting for the return of her lover who had fallen in battle many years before. (Anyone who wants to hear this song, sung by a chorus from Dartmouth College, can go to http://www.biggreen65.com/id200.html). And then it was over, the concert and my musical career. I went home and officially retired from singing. As far as I was concerned, this was the Super Bowl, and I was going to go out as a winner. Certainly there was a chorus at City College, but then I was into other things. I never sang again – except to serenade my wife from the vast repertoire I have accumulated in my juke-box-of-a-brain.
It is safe to say that vocalizing was not on my priority list when we made aliyah. There were two occasions here in The Land when my resolve was sorely tested. In one of my earlier posts, I did mention our attending a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. What could be “funner” than singing in the chorus for similar productions? It occurred to me that J.J., the son of our friends Arvin and Gila, had performed in another of the company’s productions a year or two before. I recognized the guy who owns Moked, a stationery store on King George and Hillel in Jerusalem, as being in this production. But I decided not to pursue it.
Another opportunity was an informal invitation extended to me when we were on a tour one Friday morning in the southern part of Jerusalem.. Our guide mentioned that he was a little late for his singing group which met every Friday. What did they sing?. I inquired. Barbershop quartets (albeit with more than one singer to a part). When he saw the look of delight on my face, and he realized that I knew the music, he gave me his card. If I was interested in joining, I could call him. I had the sense not to inquire into their repertoire. If he told me that it included “On the Banks of the Wabash” (Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash…), I don’t know how I would have been able to say no. But this way, I could sensibly remember the time commitment I couldn’t make and my unmistakable loss of vocal stamina over the years.
All of the above may be seen as an introduction to a magical musical evening last week. Barbara is always looking for events for us to go to, especially FREE concerts, and the like. So last Tuesday, we headed over to Sergei’s courtyard, one of Jerusalem’s most overlooked treasures, originally the courtyard of a hostel for Russian noblemen making a pilgrimage to The Holy Land, part of Jerusalem’s Russian compound – another part of the city which Olmert is determined to give away – this time to Mr. Putin, et. al. There would be a concert of a capella music in this quiet tree-lined spot, and that is all the information I had (it could have been doo-wop music, for all I knew). When we arrived at 7:15, the musicians were still rehearsing – strange because the concert, according to my wife, was supposed to start at 7:30. (Also strange was that there was hardly anybody there.) We sat down, and I began to pay attention to what was going on. The conductor (who I later found out was Judy Axelrod) was working with a small group of singers, putting the finishing touches on a performance of a Renaissance motet, a Latin text of one of the Psalms of David. After listening for about a minute to her coach her singers, it was obvious that Ms. Axelrod is a highly gifted conductor of choral music, capable of obtaining highly nuanced results from her forces – again, a capella, without instrumental support. Ms. Axelrod went from piece to piece, each time with a slightly different alignment of singers, who themselves seemed highly qualified. 7:30 came and went, as did 8PM when the rehearsal was over, and the soundmen seemed satisfied with the acoustics. By 8:10, the audience began arriving and filling the many chairs which we had watched being put into place.
At around 8:30, the concert began for real (we did check later; Barbara, who is almost perfect, had misread the starting time). You can say that we “wasted” an hour; we could have at least had a picnic supper while we waited, and we could have been reviewing our Ulpan assignments. But there is sometimes great value in witnessing a rehearsal, and we got to hang out at twilight in a verdant spot seemingly unconnected to the turmoil of today’s Jerusalem. And, believe me, I have spent longer times waiting for a lot less than this concert offered. What beautiful music: Claudio Monteverdi and his Jewish contemporary Salamone Rossi, as well as English madrigals (all from about 1600), something by the still-alive Israeli composer, Yehezkel Braun, and then a collection of “Negro Spirituals,” solidifying my impression that virtually all of the singers, like Ms. Axelrod, were originally from somewhere close to the River Thames. And the thrill of the performances: not just twenty voices coming in together – that you can reasonably expect – but changing the tempo, slowing or speeding up together, stopping together, the voices in perfect balance, louder and softer, together, together, together. With encores, an hour and a quarter of the most glorious choral music one could ask for, interrupted only by Ms. Axelrod’s witty remarks – in good Ivrit – and the sounds of applause. Then it was over, and it was time to go. I located one of the singers and asked him for some information about the conductor and the musicians. Unfortunately, I picked someone who was asked only several months ago to fill in; so he did not have much background information to relate, except to say that “It’s all her” (meaning Judy Axelrod). Not much wiser, we walked over to Jaffa St., going rapidly from the tranquility of Sergei’s courtyard (whoever Sergei was) to the reality of center city Jerusalem, with coffee shops filled with people at ten o’clock at night, despite the fact the main street is now down to one lane, the rest of the thoroughfare being dug up to accommodate the light rail, which may or may not be ready in my lifetime.
Sometime this past Shabbat when I was davening at my current shul, Mussar Avicha, an idea came to me, something overwhelmingly obvious: what is the original meaning of the words a capella? In the chapel, or in the manner of the chapel, as relating to music. In other words, unaccompanied vocal music for a religious service. So what are we doing on Shabbat in most synagogues for at least part of the service? Are we not engaging in a practice which, incidentally, our Christian brethren borrowed from us? For it is generally agreed that the plainsong, the earliest Christian music which dates from as early as the third century C.E. is somehow based on, derived from, or inspired by Jewish sources, possibly what the Leviim sang in the Beit Hamikdash. And it is also understood that these plainsongs and then the Gregorian chants formed the basis for all Western music (up to, but not including Rap).
Now it’s hard for me to relate to this glorious musical history when I walk into – usually late – a synagogue these days. What I have heard as often than not bears only a fleeting resemblance to anything musical: a shaliach tzibbur leading the davening who shouldn’t even be allowed to sing in the shower, off key, or in no recognizable key, with an obnoxious or imaginary melody, leading a group of men who could not even recite a kaddish together, let alone sing in unison. Being aware of my limited skill in correctly enunciating spoken Hebrew, I have disqualified myself from ever leading the davening, but that has not always stopped others. (If anyone thinks that I am making a plug to return to the glory days of chazzanut, let me relate that when I began writing this, I was listening to a concert of such music on the classical music station here in the Land, and I turned it off; the sounds this chazzan was making was so awful, that if he were in the room with me, I would have emptied out all the money in my pockets and begged him to stop.)
An idea occurred to me as I contemplated the discrepancy between music’s inspirational potential and the sonic reality in Ashkenazic synagogues today: was that evening of musical bliss partly a reward for my enduring these many years of aural purgatory in silence? Never once contemplating throttling somebody braying at the bima? But there must be something deeper. Since we moved to the hills and valleys of Maale Adumim (a little bit east of Yerushalayim) I have begun joking that in the world-to-come no one will ever have to walk uphill. If you go from place A to place B, it will be downhill; when you return to place A, it will still be downhill (because the earthly laws of physics will not apply). Maybe in the world-to-come, whoever is leading the davening will have the skill and the musical knowledge of a Levite of old. Maybe we will create music that will outdo the musical sophistication of Bach and the energy and sincerity of the Negro spiritual. And may our praise to our Heavenly Father be sung by the All-Universe Chorus, millions of Jews here in The Land singing sweetly together, together, together.

1 comment:

Rahel Jaskow said...

Hi. I found your blog while looking for "Madame Jeanette." I sang it as a high-school student, and to make matters even more coincidental, I spend part of my childhood in the Bronx, growing up across the street from your old high school, DeWitt Clinton.

I hope things are going well for you in Maale Adummim.