The first Albany Jewish Choral Festival on Sunday is a miracle to many and certainly a surprise to others. How many even knew there were Jewish choruses in the area, let alone enough to hold a festival?
“It’s a new tradition,” Alma Birnboim, president of the Ne’imah Jewish Community Chorus, said with a laugh. “It all depends on the rabbi and funding. Orthodox don’t approve but Conservative and Reformed temples often have choirs with organ services.”
Ne’imah is different than the three other choirs that are singing at the festival. They are from Congregation Berith Sholom of Troy, Congregation Beth Shalom of Clifton Park, and Congregation Beth Emeth of Albany. Those choirs, each numbering under 10 people, typically sing at holidays or special events.
Albany Jewish Choral Festival
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Massry Center for the Arts at The College of Saint Rose, 1002 Madison Ave., Albany
HOW MUCH: $15, $10
MORE INFO: 438-9561, www.neimah.org
But Ne’imah, which numbers about 35 singers, is a nondenominational group that is not affiliated with a temple.
“People join us who are tired of singing the same stuff and enjoy finding out Jewish traditions,” Birnboim said. “They also find out how similar people are and how we’re united through music.”
Ne’imah, which means pleasant or sweet in Hebrew, was founded 20 years ago by Rosemary Linsider, a longtime Albany resident who was active in the local Jewish community, Birnboim said. At the time, there were some a cappella Jewish choirs at various temples who sang traditional repertoire, but there was nothing organized.
But around 1990, after Linsider attended a Zamir Chorale of Boston concert, she came home determined to start a chorus that would explore and present to the community the rich musical heritage of Jewish music, both past and present. Linsider got lucky when she met Anna Dubrova.
Dubrova had then recently emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia, and had been trained in choral conducting, musical theory and piano at the Academy of Music in the Ukraine. “I had no expectation of having a music career in the United States,” Dubrova said.
In Russia at that time there were no Jewish choruses. So when Linsider took Dubrova to the second summer festival that the Zamir Choral Foundation held in 1991 in New York City, Dubrova was overwhelmed.
“It was a revelation . . . to hear a real live Jewish chorus singing,” she said. “I couldn’t stop crying.”
The Zamir Chorale was founded in 1960 as the first Hebrew-singing modern chorus in North America. Since its first summer festival in 1990, it has inspired countless other Jewish choruses and today includes the HaZamir, an international group for high school-aged singers, and a foundation, which commissions new works and sponsors international tours for its chorale, among other duties.
With not much arm-twisting, Linsider convinced Dubrova to help her organize a group of singers.
“We got a bunch of people quickly,” said Birnboim, who didn’t join the group until 1999. “Some are still with us. It was a very new idea locally [to have a Jewish chorus].”
But where to find the music?
For Dubrova, it was a totally new culture. “I didn’t know any Jewish choral music,” she said. “Now, it’s a close thing to my heart. It’s deep in my blood.”
Linsider helped find some material, the Zamir Choral Foundation provided some repertoire suggestions, and Dubrova discovered several music publishers who specialized in Jewish music and she listened to old recordings.
“It’s very beautiful music,” Dubrova said. “There’s also much Yiddish music, which I arrange for the chorus.”
In recent years as the reputation of the chorus grew, composers, many from out of town, have suggested their pieces. The chorus, which does not audition its members, sings in several languages, including Hebrew, Yiddish, Latino, and Russian, and rehearses Sunday evenings.
For the festival, the repertoire of the four choruses is a mix of traditional music, several arrangements, and music written by Leonard Bernstein, Ernest Bloch and such lesser-known names as Lewis Lewandowski (19th century German composer of synagogue music); Salamone Rossi (17th century Italian violinist/ composer); Debbie Friedman (American singer/songwriter from Utica who died last year at 50); and two living Israeli composers, Kobi Oshrat and Nachum Heiman.
The choruses will also sing three selections together. Each chorus has its own accompanist and conductor: Dan Foster conducts and is the pianist for Berith Sholom; Jeff Stein serves in both capacities for Beth Shalom; Cantor Glenn Groper conducts and Asya Markova is the pianist at Beth Emeth; and for Ne’imah, Carol McGowan is the pianist.
The concert is being billed as “Havah Nashira,” which means “Let’s Sing” in Hebrew. Birnboim said Ne’imah and Dubrova are thrilled the concert also celebrates their 20th anniversary but they are cautious as to whether the festival will become an annual event.
“Let’s see how it goes,” Birnboim said.