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  • Writer's pictureJosh Jacobson

Jewish Music Revival in Berlin

Updated: Jan 13, 2020

In the last weeks of 2019, 37 singers from the Zamir Chorale of Boston traveled to Berlin, Germany, to participate in the ninth annual Louis Lewandowski Festival. Named for Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), the great composer of choral music for Berlin's Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue, the festival is led by its indefatigable founder, Nils Busch-Petersen, and its talented musical director, Regina Yantian.

Zamir is the only choir to have been invited to the festival three times and the only choir to represent the United States. The theme this year was music from the great synagogues of southern Germany--music of Israel Mayer Japhet (1818-1892) in Frankfurt am Main; Max George Löwenstamm (1814-1881), Emanuel Kirschner (1857-1938), and Heinrich Schalit (1886-1976) in Munich; and Hugo Adler (1894-1955) in Mannheim.

Five excellent choirs participated in this year's festival: The Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, Stanley Sperber, conductor; the Berlin Synagogue Ensemble, Regina Yantian, conductor; the Baruch Brothers Choir from Belgrade, Stefan Zekic, conductor; the Moran Youth Choir from Israel, Naomi Faran, conductor; and Zamir.Thursday night was the grand opening.  

Three choirs, together with three soloists, narrator, and orchestra, all under the expert conducting of Dr. Emily Freeman Brown, performed the cantata Balak und Bilam by Hugo Adler. Adler composed this work in 1934 for the Jüdische Kulturbund in Mannheim, and it continued to be performed in 30 other venues until 1938, when the situation for the Jews in Germany had become totally unbearable. For the Jews of Germany in those years, the cantata's message of the transformation of a curse into a blessing was especially meaningful. And that message reverberated strongly for those of us who revived it more than 80 years later.

On Friday we went to the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, where we participated in a concert of Lewandowski's music, followed by an all-Lewandowski Kabbalat Shabbat service, with many of the participating choirs joining the synagogue's excellent choir and cantor. 

The festive final concert, in  which each choir performed several pieces by the South German composers, was held Sunday evening at the magnificent Rykestrasse Synagogue. Ably accompanied on the organ by our longtime keyboard collaborator, Edwin  Swanborn, Zamir performed Japhet's  "Hallelujah" and "Uvnucho Yomar" and Kohn's "Se'u Zimroh." For the brilliant finale, the five choirs, well over 100 voices, came together to perform Kirschner's "Hallelujah." 

The festival was an extraordinary experience on many levels. We brought Jewish music back to Berlin. We revived a neglected body of beautiful repertoire that deserves to be heard again. We had a cultural exchange, socializing and singing (formally and spontaneously) with choral singers from around the world. We performed for sold-out houses (over 3,500 attendees!), and we participated in programs that were on the highest musical level. What a privilege!

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