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Sacred Music of Universal Appeal

July 8, 2008

Ernest Bloch has an important part in the history of music in San Francisco. The Swiss-born composer was director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when he was commissioned in 1929 by Temple Emanu-El to write a major choral-orchestral work based on Reform Jewish liturgy. After several years of gestation, and then further delays and some performances elsewhere, Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) finally received its local premiere in Emanu-El's sanctuary in March 1938. Last Tuesday, it made a 70th-anniversary reappearance in the same sanctuary, under the direction of Rodney Gehrke.
Bloch, although grandson of a cantor, knew little Hebrew, so with help from Emanu-El's cantor, Reuben Rinder, he studied the meaning of the Sabbath morning service word by word, abridging and editing it, and internalizing the prayers until they became for him the text that he had been searching his whole life to set. The result became, as far as I know, the first Jewish liturgical work by a major classical composer. Other composers such as Darius Milhaud and Paul Ben-Haim have since contributed to the genre.

Sacred Service is a fairly large work, in five movements lasting close to an hour. It has a dark, brooding quality but also encompasses drama and passion, reflecting the emotion of the text's praise of God, although not in an over-specific sense. There are strange dissonances even in the most ecstatic passages. It might be considered premonitory of the sufferings of the Holocaust, although Bloch said in 1934 that he didn't believe Hitler's anti-Semitism was particularly significant or out of the ordinary.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)

The work is scored for a cantor (baritone soloist), a four-part chorus, and a large orchestra. I'm not sure how Bloch intended to get all these players in the tight quarters of the front of Emanu-El, which, after all, is a synagogue and not a theater. Regardless of that, however, the Emanu-El sanctuary — a huge, bright, airy, square-shaped marble-and-stucco vault in the style of Mediterranean synagogues — was a beautiful and resonant space for the music.

In this performance, both for budgetary and space reasons, the orchestra was cut down severely on the strings to allow full weight to the triple wind and brass sections. The chorus, however, was large, consisting of a hundred singers, many from four local Reform synagogues (Emanu-El, Temple Sinai in Oakland, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, and Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek), plus the chorus of Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, which was here on tour, as well as members of the chorus of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley and the San Francisco Lyric Chorus.

As for the cantor, since the concert was held in conjunction with the convention of the American Conference of Cantors, there was a plethora of worthy candidates. No reason not to share the wealth, so the solo part was split among seven of them, all with congregational responsibilities: Robert Abelson (New York City), Erik Contzius (Elkins Park, Pennsylvania), David Goldstein (Glencoe, Illinois), Jonathan Grant (Newport Beach), Richard Cohn (Dallas), Mark Childs (Santa Barbara), and Gershon Silins (Toronto).
Intimate Knowledge of the Content
Even if you've never attended a Jewish religious service, you may have heard a cantor, because many cantors, including all these men, also appear on stage in opera, musical theater, or concert performances. At least three of our seven soloists have performed the Sacred Service in concert before. The music is Bloch's own — he employs only one traditional cantorial melody, although his modal music bears strong stylistic resemblances to traditional Jewish music — but all the soloists approached their work as cantors rather than as concert singers. They knew the prayers intimately, of course, as reflected in the fact that, while Bloch's transliteration uses the Ashkenazic dialect of Hebrew, the cantors sang in the more Sephardic pronunciation that is universal in synagogues today.

Each had a distinctive individual style, embodying the varieties of cantorial practice. Cantors Abelson and Goldstein were the most traditionally cantorial, Goldstein in particular employing irregular vocal movement, bending of notes, and a strong, wide vibrato. Cantors Contzius and Childs had firm, powerful voices and were more restrained in their embellishments. Cantors Cohn and Grant had lighter voices, Cohn's being the sweetest with the most regular vibrato, and Grant's being rather nasal with trills and a more operatic approach.

To Cantor Silins fell the responsibility of performing the Adoration and pre-Kaddish prayer, the only portions of the text in English. (The Kaddish itself, the mourners' prayer, is not included in this work, although Leonard Bernstein added it in his recording.) Bloch directs that this section be spoken on pitch. Bernstein had a rabbi speak it without specified pitch. Cantor Silins chose to sing it outright in his deep and lyrical voice.

Although I'd just come from an evening worship service with a congregation consisting almost entirely of cantors — producing an astonishing sound in the audience responses — the chorus in the Sacred Service held up fairly well by comparison, echoing the cantor or going off on flights of its own, only occasionally faltering slightly, and being rich and full enough to ride over the reduced orchestra. The Golden Gate Festival Orchestra, as it was dubbed, consisted mainly of musicians from the little-known and underrated Fremont Symphony. This, too, was a strong ensemble, with cultivated wind solos and brass that resounded without blaring.

Gehrke, the choir director and organist at the temple, has conducted this work before, and led the performance with confidence. There were no slack passages, nor disconnections when one cantor was replaced by another in the course of a movement. Bloch intended a work of universal appeal to humanity. This was a performance that could be appreciated by anyone with an interest in sacred concert music.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.