Jewish sound: Concerts to feature works of Jewish composers

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Chicago a cappella kicks off its 25th season with a series of four Jewish-themed concerts in October titled “Funny, That Doesn’t Sound Jewish.”  

The unaccompanied singing ensemble will delve into the rich diversity of Jewish composers, from European courts to the Broadway stage.

The concerts will be held at three regional synagogues, KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park, Temple Har Zion in River Forest, Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville and Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. The concerts are scheduled for Oct. 8, 14, 15 and 22.

Concert goers will hear the music of Mendelssohn, Bernstein, Irving Berlin, Chicagoarea composers Max Janowski and Stacy Garrop, and many more, with styles ranging from opera and oratorio to Yiddish song and American Songbook standards.  Listeners will discover the dynamic influences of religion and society on composers whose music does —and doesn’t—sound Jewish.

Jonathan Miller, founder and artistic director of the accomplished singing ensemble, says that this concert series, one of four for the 2017-2018 season, evolved from “Jewish Roots of Broadway,” a series held two years ago. The performances sold more tickets than any other show in the ensemble’s history, Miller said. So it was natural to follow up with a related program.

“If you listen to some of the songs from Broadway musicals and American standards, you’ll realize they are based in part on synagogue melodies and songs from Yiddish theater,” Miller said.

When creating this Jewish music program, Miller drew inspiration from Jack Gottlieb, author of the book “Funny It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue melodies influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood.”

“He took that idea and looked down to the level of the measure and the note figuring out a song might really come from a Torah blessing,” said Miller, who himself is a Jewish composer and High Holiday cantor at Congregation Rodfei Zedek. “It’s an incredible book.”

The upcoming concerts explore what can be learned from Jewish composers of the past such as Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish violinist and composer of the late Italian Renaissance, and Felix Mendelssohn, a composer of the early romantic period whose family converted to the Lutheran Church.

The set program includes living composers, some of whom are professional colleagues of Miller. Unlike late composers, he can talk to his colleagues and find out why one piece sounds Jewish and another doesn’t. “And how do we define sounding Jewish anyway? Put all that stuff in a pot and stir it up and we have this program. We really had fun with it.”

Miller, who is 55, founded the acapella group 24 years ago. His music will be part of the program’s repertoire. The musicologist has written more than 75 choral works in a variety of genres and languages. He is also a leading figure in Jewish choral music, active as composer, cantor, conductor and producer.

He attended Reform Hebrew and Sunday school at KAM Isaiah Israel where Janowski was a synagogue composer and music director. Before his death more than 25 years ago, Janowski directed about half a dozen other choirs at synagogues. Most famously, he composed an Avinu Malkeinu tune, sung by Barbra Streisand.  

Miller was invited as a teen to solo by Janowski and that cemented his love for Jewish choral music. He experienced Conservative services that were all in Hebrew. “I had never seen anything like that before and I loved it. I’ve basically been doing that same liturgy for 38 years at the High Holidays at Rodfei Zedek.”

Miller took over the choir after Janowski decided to retire. He started writing choral music 15 years ago, his first well-received piece was a Shehecheyanu for four-part mixed choir.

He wanted to develop a virtuoso acapella group of singers that are classically trained and flexible. They  can sing in any style. “One of the things I wanted the ensemble to do is to have a special repertoire in the area of Jewish music.”

Of Chicago a cappella, he says, “The singers love to sing and communicate. There is a very warm rapport between the singers on stage and the audience.”


“Funny, That Doesn’t Sound Jewish” will take place Sunday, Oct. 8 at 4 p.m. at Congregation Beth Shalom, 772 W. 5th Avenue, Naperville; Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. at KAM Isaiah Israel, 1100 E. Hyde Park Boulevard, Chicago; Sunday, Oct. 15 at 4 p.m. at West Suburban Temple Har Zion, 1040 N. Harlem Avenue, River Forest; Sunday, Oct. 22 at 4 p.m. at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. For tickets and information, visit www.chicagoacappella.org or call (773) 281-7820.  

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