New musical horizons | March 9, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 9, 2012

New musical horizons

San Francisco Choral Artists challenge choral stereotypes with a diverse program of Jewish music

by Rebecca Wallace

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase "choral music"? Church choir, perhaps, or a sing-along "Messiah."

For most people, the image is apt to be religious and most likely Christian. Either way, it probably doesn't include a dulcimer, and it probably isn't in Yiddish.

Magen Solomon, artistic director of San Francisco Choral Artists, prides herself on choosing unusual programs for her singers. One of her favorite things is to sit down with a 5-foot-tall stack of music and choose a piece here, a piece there, until she achieves a fine concert blend. Past concerts have included new settings of writings by e.e. cummings and William Wordsworth, and contemporary works for period instruments.

On March 11, the Choral Artists come to Palo Alto with the klezmer band Veretski Pass, bringing an eclectic program of Jewish music and challenging the typical notions of a choir.

"I try to do Jewish music at least every other year. There's so much wonderful music that is not known," Solomon said. "For so many people, the only live choral music they hear is in church."

Palo Alto churches are common venues for choral and instrumental concerts. This time, Solomon has chosen Congregation Etz Chayim, where she was a member before she moved from Menlo Park to Oakland.

Sunday's program, titled "Prophets, Kings & Klezmer," pairs the 24-voice chorus with the three East Bay musicians of Veretski Pass: Cookie Segelstein, Stuart Brotman and Joshua Horowitz. Both groups will perform alone and together.

One section of the concert, sung by the Choral Artists, is devoted to psalms. "There are lots and lots of psalm settings. I wanted to give an overview of how many kinds there are," Solomon said.

The section starts with the American composer Joshua Jacobson's take on Psalm 114, in which he mingles a Sephardic Hebrew melody with Gregorian chant.

"You hear how similar the melodies are," Solomon said. "Although we branched off a long time ago, the Christians and the Jews, there is this common musical root."

Felix Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 43 is "lush and rich," followed by a gracefully simple two-voice setting of Psalm 92 by the American composer Karen Tarlow, Solomon said. Fellow American George Rochberg has placed Psalm 150 in a 12-tone setting that is more melodic than one might expect, she said.

Sunday's concert also features two world premieres performed by both the Choral Artists and Veretski Pass.

The New York composer Matt Van Brink, who won a young-composers' competition with Choral Artists in 2006, returns with his new work "They Disappear." Based on a poem by the late Yiddish writer Abraham Reisen, the piece is both a Holocaust story and a love song, Solomon said. It will be performed by singers as well as the Veretski Pass musicians on violin, cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) and bass.

"The text is very evocative," Solomon said, quoting in part: "So they disappear, the songs of yesteryear." She added, "He (Van Brink) uses the cimbalom as a soft, shiny sound."

Also being premiered is "Vest Oysform" by Tina Harrington, a Choral Artists singer and its assistant conductor. The Alter Esselin poem translated from the Yiddish by his son Joseph is a matter-of-fact piece of poetic advice about what people need to be happy, including: "A flat and raw bit of land, / A strong horse and a clean stall. / A heart that's ready for merriment, / And tears that pour from a deep well."

The concert also includes three pieces performed by Veretski Pass alone: "Grass Widow Suite," "The Sin of Sleep" and "The Wonder of Being" (from "The Klezmer Shul").

Veretski Pass is named after the mountain pass where Magyar tribes crossed centuries ago to reach what was later called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Choral Artists, the Veretski Pass musicians go their own musical way. They've been praised by critics for introducing audiences to klezmer traditions that stretch far and wide, including wedding music, dances and original compositions that go beyond the more typical jazzy, German and Russian sound.

"The Klezmer Shul" has been a major project for the trio. The musicians describe it on their website as a tone poem in four movements with 23 segments, including "elements of the classical sonata, traditional klezmer dance suites and avant-garde jazz."

They add: "Our original impulse in creating this work was to give the listener an emotional experience comparable to attending a religious service. In reinterpreting the traditional Jewish liturgy, we drew from the musical vocabularies of the many peoples among whom klezmer musicians have lived and worked."

Still, Solomon said that she believes Sunday's concert is for everyone, not just Jewish listeners.

"We are always hoping that our concerts open people's minds to new music, but we don't take a pedagogical approach," she said. "I put these pieces in context where they can really hear them and they are approachable."

Solomon laughed. "One of my favorite comments I've gotten is, 'I thought I hated contemporary music. What you did was really beautiful.'"

What: "Prophets, Kings & Klezmer," a concert by San Francisco Choral Artists and the Veretski Pass ensemble

Where: Congregation Etz Chayim, 4161 Alma St., Palo Alto

When: Sunday, March 11, at 4 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $12-$25 in advance and $15-$30 at the door.

Info: Go to or call 415-494-8149.


Like this comment
Posted by Natalie
a resident of Woodside
on Mar 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm

This sounds like a most unusual concert, and I know the singing will be outstanding, so I'm going!