Central to Brookline Consort’s concert of the music of many faiths that took place June 22nd at United Parish Church in Brookline, and the inspiration for its title, stood Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service). Cantor Reuben Rinder of Congregation Emanu-el in San Francisco commissioned it and became its dedicatee. The University of California and the Stern family of San Francisco also contributed.
Bloch was born in Geneva to Jewish parents. He studied in Brussels, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe, returning to Geneva where he worked with Jacques-Dalcroze. He immigrated to the United States in 1916 and became a US citizen 8 years later. His earnings from Avodath Hakodesh allowed him to return to Switzerland to study Hebrew and to compose in that language; he completed the work in 1933 in Ticino. Bloch vainly hoped to premiere the work in Berlin, but the first performance took place in Turin, before other European cities followed.
Bloch felt that writing music that expressed his Jewish identity gave it vitality and significance. Intended as a concert piece scored for chorus, orchestra, and solo Cantor, Avodath Hakodesh nevertheless takes its text from the Sabbath Morning Service according to the Union Prayer Book.
We heard Part 1 Meditation and Part 2 Kedushah with Kevin Neel, one of the Brookline Consort’s founders, providing the instrumental part on the piano; the very considerable vocal talents of the Brookline Consort sang the choral parts. The cantor, bass-baritone Ian Pomerantz proved an especially brilliant choice. Filled with passion and strong conviction, he sang with a gritty tone of tenacity and defiance that perfectly fit the nature of the music and Bloch’s intention at that dark time; yet he also moved effortlessly to an inspired sweetness filled with intimacy. This required a surprisingly wide vocal range which he traversed so subtly that we could hardly remember that we were listening to a remarkable performance. I extend that comment to Kevin Neel’s playing, and the singing of the chorus. I attended the second performance specifically to be critically detached, but I utterly failed in that: the seemingly effortless beauty of the whole performance overwhelmed me.
In Part 1,the cantor dialogues with the chorus, alternating with them from section to section: he from the lectern, they on the floor below. In Part 2, the positions changed as the singers moved into the choir, providing celestial harmonies behind his strong bass in the Kodosh. By the Yimloch Adonoy, the Cantor had dropped out, and the piece ended with a soft and hopeful Halaluyah. Superb throughout, the Sacred Service moved us deeply with its delicacy and power.
Preceding the Bloch, we had heard Zikr by A.R. Rahman in an arrangement by Ethan Sperry. This is music inspired by Sufi mystics, known in the west as whirling dervishes, a group who, like the Shakers, achieves an ecstatic union with the Holy through repetitive movement. The Brookline Consort, in their wisdom, only whirled a few times — and slowly; they have the vocal control and technique that allowed them to produce swirling overtones and insistent rhythms without the need for performance tricks. While Zikr represents one of the 3 Abrahamic faiths on the program, its context is more complex than just that: A.R. Rahman, a Hindu by birth, converted to Islam in his ’20’s; his Hindu mother followed Sufi practice, so he represents an even broader cultural context than we initially expected. His music ranges wide in influence and style; for instance, he has two Oscars for the score to “Slumdog Millionaire,” and his choral pieces are often performed. In Zikr he is exploring the connection between music and movement, a prominent feature of the teaching of Jacques-Dalcroze, who developed Euryhthmics.
The second half offered Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, a setting of the Latin Mass, by a Swiss Calvinist, born in Geneva like Bloch, and also a student of Jacques-Dalcroze. In this brilliantly conceived program, we are ranging widely across religious cultures as we explore the many ways they are connected.
It is interesting to look closely at the texts, particularly as there have been some controversies around public school choirs singing Zikr whose final words are “there is no other truth except Allah.” The last stanza features “O you the Amazing, O you the Eternal, … O you the Great” which connects directly to the “Mi Chomocho” of the Jewish service: “Who is like unto thee among the mighty, O Lord? Who is like unto thee, glorious in holiness…?” In Part 2 of that Service, the Kodosh — “kodosh, kodosh, kodosh” which means “holy, holy, holy” — reappears in the Sanctus of the Latin Mass. The Avodath Hakodesh formed not only the centerpiece of the concert, but also a kind of pivot point, its scriptural origin being the primary source of many religious impulses across many different cultures.
Frank Martin was born in Geneva in 1890, making him 10 years younger than Bloch. Though he wrote his Mass for Double Choir in 1922 adding the Agnus Dei in 1926, publishing and performance did not come until 1963. During the 1930’s, Martin developed an interest in Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, but he composed this Mass while still influenced by the theories of Jacques-Dalcroze. It’s filled with complex rhythms and movement, starting with the spinning, layered patterns of the Kyrie. The Gratias agimus tibi of the Gloria unfolds in an almost Renaissance-like polyphony; Qui tollis piccata mundi is sung a somber drone underneath. This is very detailed and personal music; indeed, Martin kept it to himself until the 1960’s, saying that he felt it to be a private matter between himself and God. His religious intensity mirrors that of Bloch and manifests itself elsewhere in the various texts of the Mass; for instance, Martin gives the Et resurrexit tertia die line to the women, just as it was, after all, the women who first found out that piece of news. By the Sanctus, we are whirling again — bringing us full circle back to the ecstasy of movement we heard in Zikr, and finally, to the soft and serene Dona nobis pacem. Peace indeed, and fullness.
The word “sacred” as Bloch used it and the Brookline Consort applied it in its concert title means “set apart” or “dedicated.” It is something that a culture institutes by customs and practices. It is easy to forget that it is we who create sacredness by the investment of hope and practice that we, as a culture, make in an idea or an institution. One may choose to debate details of belief, but whatever one’s belief, the sacredness that any group invests in a service or place deserves respect and engagement.
It is a wonder to me — and a great delight — that a group of such young musicians can speak so directly to my 70-year-old soul. As they describe themselves in the notes, the conductorless Brookline Consort comprises “professional musicians who are committed to telling stories through diverse, thoughtful programming performed at the highest level.” This they do — at the very highest level indeed. In each of its concerts, they tell a most interesting and cohesive story, and I am left affected and moved. Its June 2018 concert “Time’s Passing” climaxed with Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year wherein my own life passed before me. “Quirks and Oddities” of last October, a strange title for a concert, ranged from Hildegard von Bingen to the brilliant Missa Brevis Brevis by Marc Hoffeditz, and this past Christmas season’s “Fireside Carols” gave us Benjamin Britten and Alfred Burt, all holiday warmth without a trace of the maudlin or trite. Boston is rich in young musicians doing spectacular things for tiny audiences at bargain ticket prices. If we fail to support them, they might — they will — go elsewhere. We are blessed to have the Brookline Consort (soon, by the way, to be rebranded as Et Al.) bringing us a most rewarding combination of musicianship, scholarship, and spirit.
Michael Scanlon has spent a long life in the arts and design. He listens intently to live performance of local musicians.
He acknowledges the generous editorial help of Carla Coch