December 16, 2017 by Jean
Last weekend was my choral group’s annual holiday concert. We sang two performances, one on Saturday evening and the other on Sunday afternoon. In the past, this concert has been called “A Heritage Christmas” and each year’s event has focused on music from a particular tradition. For example, one year featured French Christmas music and another year featured English music. Last year, the concert focused on music from North America, both sacred and secular pieces written by American composers and songwriters, including a selection of Negro spirituals. This year, the concert was renamed “Heritage Holidays” and included music of both Christmas and Chanukah. The chorale was joined for the performance by local rabbi Sruli Dresdner and Lisa Mayer (his wife), who are internationally known Klezmer musicians.
I was a bit concerned about how well the mix would work, and I think there was some nervousness about how our usual audience – which is predominantly Christian, with a large component of Franco-Americans (descendants of Quebecois immigrants, a major ethnic group in New England) – would react to the Chanukah music. It turned out that the concert was a great success; many of us ended up feeling that it was our best concert ever.
The Maine Music Society’s Artistic Director, John Corrie, did a masterful job of creating a program that had enough of the familiar to please the audience and enough that was new to excite. This was not a Christmas concert with a little Chanukah music stirred in, but was equally balanced between the two holiday traditions. The first half of the program was weighted toward Chanukah. We began with five Christmas songs, followed by five Chanukah songs, and with an interlude of Klezmer music. Some songs for each religious tradition featured sacred texts, while others were secular. The Christmas songs included lyrics in English and Latin, while the Chanukah songs included English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. The second half of the concert was weighted more toward Christmas. We began with five Christmas songs. These were followed by three Chanukah songs and another interlude of Klezmer music. The concert ended with an audience sing-along of traditional Christmas carols.
There was no doubt that the stars of this concert were the Klezmer musicians. Rabbi Sruli Dresdner is an amazingly versatile musician who plays multiple instruments (including a very jazzy clarinet). Lisa Mayer played violin, sang, and was a wonderful performer. She dramatized one Yiddish folk song so convincingly that, although few people in the audience understood Yiddish, everyone could easily follow the story line. By the time she was done, she even had the audience singing along.
It’s difficult for me to convey what a joyful and moving event this concert was. Near the end of the second concert, when Sruli Dresdner spoke about it as a model of inclusion and celebrating one another’s traditions in a very divisive time, more than a few of us shed a tear. I think everyone, performers and audience alike, left the concert feeling as though their hearts had grown and their lives had been enriched by a beautiful blending of holiday traditions.
A week later, I’m still on a high. I wake up every morning singing one or another Christmas or Chanukah song from the concert. (Today it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Light One Candle”.) Next week, I’ll turn to Mozart and begin learning the music for our next concert in late March.