I have just returned from a week of teaching and conducting at the Zimriya World Assembly of Choirs in Israel. It was an inspirational experience, with dozens of conductors and hundreds of singers from Israel, Europe, Asia, North and South America and Africa.
I arrived in Akko with my family on Friday afternoon, August 9. The old city was closed to traffic and the streets were thronged with pedestrians: Arabs, Jews, tourists from abroad. All were celebrating the final days of Eid al-Fitr, a joyous Moslem festival marking the end of Ramadan. Moslems were dressed in their finest clothes. Some women were covered from head to toe, and some were in less modest garb, but everyone seemed to be tolerant of the others. There were amusement parks, toy stores, and food and drink stands everywhere. We enjoyed the best hummus we had ever tasted. Loudspeakers blared Arabic pop music, except at prayer time, when we heard the (recorded) voice of the muezzin from the minaret calling the faithful to prayer with the most beautiful chant.
Saturday night I met with the organizers of the Zimriya and my fellow workshop conductors: Timothy Brown from the UK, Gabor Hollerung from Hungary, Werner Pfaff from Germany, Nestor Zadoff from Argentina and Sanna Valvanne from Finland. The meetings, rehearsals and most concerts would take place in a recently restored Crusader fortress, some 800 years old. There were three choirs assigned to my workshop, nearly 100 singers: the Mthatha Anglican Diocesan Choir from South Africa, the Eva Jewish Youth Choir from St. Petersburg, Russia and the Eden Shir Ganenu choir from Paris.
I was asked to rehearse and then lead these singers in a performance of a program of “Jewish Music.” Given that most of my singers had no knowledge of Hebrew and couldn’t read music, I confined my workshop to three pieces: the “Kedushah” from Darius Milhaud’s Service Sacré, the “Sanctus/Kedushah” from Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, and my arrangement of Shlomo Carlebach’s “Mizmor LeDavid” (Psalm 29). We worked hard, with six hours of rehearsal each day.
Every evening all the participants were treated to a concert by local and visiting ensembles. For me the most exciting performance was given by two amazing choirs: Al Ba’ath—the Arab Voices of Galilee, conducted by Rahib Haddad and the Manado State University Choir from Indonesia, conducted by Prof. André de Quadros. The music was exotic, carefully and tastefully choreographed, and always exquisitely performed. And what a treat to see and hear Christian Arabs and Asian Muslims performing for an appreciative Jewish audience in Israel!
On the last night of the festival, each workshop performed the music it had been preparing during the week. Our Jewish Music workshop went off quite well, accompanied by pianist Sharon Schatz and the Chamber Academy Orchestra from Basel Switzerland. Although it had been a struggle for many of my singers to memorize the music (with so many Hebrew words) and internalize the subtleties of its interpretation, everyone came away with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Zukisa Tyumre, the director of the Mthatha Anglican Diocesan Choir from South Africa, wrote to me, “This serves to express my sincere words of gratitude for the good work you did in the 23rd Zimriya 2013. If I were to describe you in three adjectives, I'd say, ‘Tolerant, Patient and definitely very kind.’ A lot of things happened in our workshop, that could have led you to hit the roof, but you were so calm and collected. You were even patient with us, despite not having done the music, let alone having no idea of the staff notation. All this taught me what a real leader should be like; indeed music runs through your blood veins. Keep up the good work so God can continuously and tirelessly be praised by all nations.” And I say, “Amen!”