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Major Key to Identity

September 17, 2008

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ

‘While ‘Hatikva’ may not the greatest piece of music,” says Zamir Chorale Foundation founder and director Matthew (Mati) Lazar, “the power one feels singing it is undeniable.”

The long-time conductor and ardent Zionist goes on to ask rhetorically: “Who else but our people would have their national anthem in a minor key?”

Here last month to conduct members of his Zamir Chorale and Shirah Choir, as well as a large group of individual singers from across the United States in performances marking “Israel@60″ (after selling out Carnegie Hall earlier this year in a similar birthday celebration), Lazar, also 60, explains the impetus for and philosophy behind this part of his life’s work – connecting Jews to their heritage through choral music.

“Choral music – like our history – is all about the texts,” he says. “And ultimately, our singing is all about education through entertainment.”

To illustrate, he points to the Pessah song “Had Gadya” – the ancient Aramaic-Hebrew precursor to children’s favorites, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

“Everyone’s singing cheerfully about how God’s creatures are killing each other off,” he says, laughing. “It’s a history lesson.”

Speaking of which, Lazar’s own history is the stuff of a Herman Wouk novel – self-described as the “hoch [ultimate] Jewish experience of the 1950s.”

Raised in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood by amateur musician parents – his father (born Lazerovitch) was a pianist and his mother a singer – “The highlight of our week was Shabbat, when we’d go to shul to hear Moshe or Dovid Koussevitzky, arguably the greatest cantors of the time. Then, on Saturday night, after havdala, my older sister and I would sit on opposite leaves of our baby grand piano, while my father would play and my mother would sing through all of Schubert’s song cycles and then the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. When we finished that, we would watch Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.”

This kind of eclectic musical seasoning may have something to do with the fact that Lazar – who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, Vivian, an alto in the Zamir Chorale and director of the foundation’s teen program, HaZamir: the International High School Choir – was also a product of the late ’60s and early ’70s generation. He’s even got a rock group in his past to show for it – “the first Hebrew-singing one in America.”

Called “Tayku,” the band, Lazar reminisces, “was an outgrowth of my musical collaborations with friends, all of whom sang with me in the original Zamir Chorale. A fellow tenor, Mayer Davis, and I created a duo when we worked at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire, where I was the music counselor, during the summer of 1968. I am a pianist. Our band still needed a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. Joining us during the next year was the composer, guitarist David Burger, with whom I had recorded with a group called ‘Matthew’s Scooter’ for CBS Records. Ira Epstein, another tenor, soon joined us as our drummer. We were all looking for creative, exciting and musically satisfying ways of combining our love for Hebrew-Israeli music with contemporary American sound and tight vocal harmonies. By 1971, we had cut our first single, and added our final band member, Ruby Davis.”

Why did they call it “Tayku”?

“We aggressively looked for a name for our group,” Lazar explains. “After countless hours of fruitless discussion – and having discarded such names as ‘Second Salami Sandwich’ and ‘Ultimate Milchiks,’ Mayer and I shrugged and simultaneously said to each other: ‘Tayku!’ [This is the classic talmudic response to a situation in which a decision cannot be reached.] Immediately, we smiled and knew that we’d found it.”

Lazar comes by his Zionism as honestly as he does his music. Both sets of grandparents lived in Palestine in the 1890s, and read, wrote and spoke Hebrew – as does he. Indeed, at the concert he conducted at the Jerusalem Theater last month, Lazar addressed the audience bilingually with ease.

Given his upbringing, Lazar’s combining of his musical pursuits and passion for the State of Israel may not sound so peculiar. Far more striking is his ideological path. An unapologetic “independent” in his American voting habits and political views relating to Israel, Lazar is anything but conventional in his social, professional and geographical circles.

In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post during his tour, Lazar discusses the need for Jews to cross this political divide for the purpose of creating a connection to their collective past and future.

How is your goal distinct from that of those who seek to bridge the gaps among the different streams of Judaism through dialogue?

Transdenominational unity is a great thing, but it’s an old story by now. Today, it’s in the transpolitical sphere where the work needs to be done. And music is a great vehicle for bringing people together and creating harmony, particularly when they’re singing or listening to the right text. I’ve been successful at finding music with text that’s appropriate, that’s mainstream, and upon which everyone can agree. Music with text is a very powerful catharsis mechanism. When hundreds of people have catharsis by singing, breathing and thinking the same thought at the same time, the unity that it creates is amazing and long- lasting.

But does this really have any bearing on political unity? Between rehearsals or during intermissions, don’t the singers go back to arguing about the merits of Obama vs McCain, for example, or Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians?

I think that when the singers sing, or the audience hears, for example, the piece “K’she Tavo,” written by Boaz Sharabi for Ron Arad, it has a powerful effect on everybody. It may be just for the time that they’re there. But if they have a common moment, and they hear this powerful expression of the actual human sacrifice that’s required to have a state, and they make eye contact, or feel moved at the same time, it brings them together. And, if someone is brave enough to go over the divide and initiate a conversation with someone on the opposing side, at least they now have a common emotional point of departure for honest discourse. When we performed “Hatikva,” with the choir and audience totaling 3,000 people singing it in Carnegie Hall this past March, it was such a transformative moment that I’m still receiving letters about it. It was impossible not to feel the unity, the old-style kind that “Hatikva” used to arouse – the kind that sends shivers down everybody’s spine, and then back up to their brain.

You talk about old-style unity. You’ve worked with Jewish and Israeli musicians, composers and conductors on all sides of the political spectrum: David Bar-Illan, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein. Isn’t Barenboim’s dream – and definition – of political harmony very different from yours? He fantasizes joint concerts in Damascus, after all.

First of all, my work doesn’t involve bringing Jews and Arabs together. It’s hard enough just trying to brings Jews together [he laughs]. Second of all, I’m always wondering how successful these outreach programs really are. Did the 1936 Olympics help or hurt Hitler, for example? Does bringing Jews together with Palestinians who support their leadership’s denial of our existence as a Jewish state promote coexistence or maintain the status quo?

Speaking of coexistence, though the evangelicals are unapologetically supportive of Israel, and were, in fact, among the few tourists who continued to come here, even during the intifadas and wars, your choirs don’t sing Christian music. Why is that?

Before I answer that, let me say that I’m very proud of the fact that I took five missions to Israel during the second intifada. Those trips were devoted to singing for victims of terror, soldiers in rehab centers and people in hospitals. We suspended formal concerts during those years, in order to reach the people who could not come to hear us.

As to why we don’t sing Christian music, our idea is to promote Jewish identity, and one doesn’t do that by singing what you call Christian and most Western music. Still, there is much about the origins of Western music that most people don’t know. There’s an adage that says that Jewish history is written on pages that were ripped out of history books. So, for example, most people don’t know that we can trace Gregorian chant back to the music of the Temple in Jerusalem. The explanation of the origin of Gregorian chant as being a dove singing into the ear of Pope Gregory leaves a lot to be desired.

Indeed, there are a number of examples of music that some would think of as Christian, because they sound Gregorian, but which, in fact, are Jewish. One piece, a panegyric to Moses, “Mi Al Har Horev,” was found in the Cairo Geniza, for example. Though it sounds like Gregorian chant, in fact it’s Jewish. The only reason we know it exists is because the person who wrote it down was trained as a monk, and therefore learned how to write music notation, and subsequently converted to Judaism.

Can you give examples of composers or music that have Jewish roots or influence that most of us are unaware of?

Because Jews are very good at adopting other people’s styles and concepts, Western music influenced Jewish composers when they were allowed to participate in Western society. So you have a composer like Salamone Rossi, the first important Jewish composer, writing music that today’s Jews would think sounds un-Jewish. This is a double tragedy, so to speak, because not only do they no longer know their own music history, but that fact stops them from appreciating the greatness and Jewishness of this music.

I’m often asked who the greatest cantor of all time is. I love to answer: “J.S. Bach.”

Obviously, Bach wasn’t Jewish, but his title in church was “Kantor,” which comes from the Latin “to sing.”

It is thus that the first self-titled Jewish cantor, Solomon Sulzer, chose Bach’s title as his own. He was trying to show everybody in Vienna in the first half of the 19th century that Jews could be great musicians, too. He even commissioned Schubert to write a setting of Psalm 92, the psalm for Shabbat, “Tov Lehodot.”

Most people can’t imagine Schubert setting a Hebrew text.

On another level, the sonata-allegro form, the A-B-A, is basically a pattern of tshuva, of returning to the right path: You have a musical idea; it develops, and then recapitulates with a necessary correction. This pattern of rejuvenation is a human idea, but the notion of tshuva is very Jewish.

What about harmony? Is that a Jewish notion?

Harmony is not uniquely a Jewish notion, though Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav put it into perspective best when he said that when two people speak at the same time, it’s cacophony, but when two people sing at the same time, it’s harmony.

What, then, is particularly Jewish about any of this – as opposed to being universal?

It’s an interesting question. A non-Jewish friend who presents at our North American Jewish Choral Festival, the largest gathering of Jewish musicians and singers in North America, which I established 19 years ago, said the following: “As a Unitarian, I always thought that all paths would lead to the same God, and therefore all music would lead to the same path. But Jewish music is different. Jewish music has memory.”

Then there is the Jewish understanding of the sometime conflict between the aesthetic and the moral – that is to say, between the beautiful and the good.

What about Jewish memories associated with certain music, like that of Wagner, for example? Can great music stand on its own, or is a composer’s anti-Semitism relevant? Is the controversy in Israel surrounding this question justified?

Well, Wagner – the icon of the Nazis – certainly shouldn’t be performed in Israel if it hasn’t been identified as part of the program. It should be advertised and whoever comes comes. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the state should necessarily support that performance. Nor is it necessary at the current time, while so many people in Israel are still alive who have numbers tattooed on their arms, to play music whose composer provided the ideology which inspired their torturers. There may come a time in the future when it is all right to play Wagner. This has nothing to do with his value as a composer, but with sensitivity. It is also an issue of the relative values of aesthetics and morality – and which trumps what.

Do your outspoken views on Jewish, Zionist and American issues make it difficult for you to raise money for the foundation?

Because of my dedication to klal Yisrael, I’ve been able to attract support from across the denominational and political spectrum. The difficulty in raising money has been that it is only within recent memory the organized Jewish community has even begun to acknowledge culture as a tool for promoting identity. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is our teen program that is stimulating the most interest.

Do you actually teach the teens about the texts while they rehearse?

Absolutely, and not only the teens. That’s the whole point of the choral experience in general. It’s very important to educate our singers, especially the teens, who are exposed to all kinds of false information about Jewish history and Israel. And we do this through texts that are undeniable. For example, one of our favorite pieces, “U’kratem Dror” [proclaim liberty], which was written in response to the 9/11 attacks, is the text on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia! Singing words from Leviticus, some of which are on the Liberty Bell, others of which were used by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, is a powerful way of highlighting the contributions of Jewish ideas and texts to the development of the world. Tikkun olam, indeed.

With choirs across the US, how do you make sure that the texts are being taught – and sung – the way you want them to be by other conductors?

We have 18 teen chapters across the US, and one in Israel. And we have a specific repertoire that teaches the history of the Jewish people and Zionism that’s common to all of them. I know the conductors, and work with them to ensure that our standards are being met. We get together twice a year to rehearse and perform in major venues, like Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.

On the adult level, we hold the North American Jewish Choral Festival every summer, which brings together individuals who sing in choirs around the country. It is important to gather these individual adults, who live in places where there could never be a Jewish choir for lack of numbers, and even if there could be a Jewish choir, there wouldn’t be enough good Jewish choral singers to fill it. This gives the singers the opportunity to express the totality of their being using great Jewish choral music.

What happens when a teen who wants to join a choir for the Jewish social and educational experience doesn’t have a good enough singing voice?

Those who lack talent or musical skills self-select, and eventually drop out, when they feel they’re over their heads. In most cases, we don’t have auditions for the teens – though the Israeli chapter of HaZamir is auditioned – because even during a single rehearsal, a life can be changed.

But the way we separate the very talented from the merely capable is through our chamber choir. That’s an audition process, based on the model of all-city and all- state high school choirs. My idea when I created the HaZamir program was to give Jewish teenagers the opportunity to sing first-rate Jewish music in a first-rate way, and connect to their identity – without relying on the Brahms Requiem or the Mozart Requiem to inspire them.

Are you personally expressing the full spectrum of your Jewish self in the Diaspora? Did you never consider making aliya?

I certainly did consider it. My sister made aliya before the Yom Kippur War and lives with her family in Rehovot. She’s a wonderful musician and a great harpsichordist. When I was young, I thought that the difference between boys and girls was that girls understood the horizontal line in music and boys the vertical – because that was the difference between us. As it turns out, there may be some truth to that.

I almost moved here in the late ’70s. But both my parents were ill, so it wasn’t the right time. After they died, I came to understand that what I had to offer was promoting Jewish identity through music – and to bring Jews to Israel, and to bring Israeli music to America. If I could, I would physically live in both places. Emotionally and intellectually, I already do.

Originally published by RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ.

(c) 2008 The Jerusalem Post. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.




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