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SONAM (Singers of New and Ancient Music) is a chorus of about 20 fine volunteer singers under the direction of the outstanding choral conductor Allan Friedman and assisted by choral accompanist Jane Lynch. Their mission is to make excellent choral music that supports local non-profits through benefit concerts. This concert encouraged donations at the door for PORCH, a non-profit seeking to alleviate hunger and promote better nutrition in our community. The concert featured music of wartime, peace, and togetherness in honor of the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I and the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The opening selection was Ralph Vaughan Williams' awesome setting of "Dirge for Two Veterans," with poetry of Walt Whitman used as a part of "Dona Nobis Pacem." This piece was composed in 1936 as an appeal for peace amid the growing fear of war which, alas, went ignored. Originally scored for large orchestra, this performance was given with a volunteer brass ensemble which, although lacking in finesse, provided a moving performance. Also assisting in this performance were oboist Michele Price, pianist Lynch, and percussionists Kim McCorkle and Les Webster, playing bass drum and snare drum, respectively.
Claude Goudimel (1510-72) converted from Catholicism to Calvinism and was instrumental in the creation and publication of the Geneva Psalter, a collection of Psalms and spiritual chansons arranged in the vernacular for congregational use. We heard "Cantique de Siméon," (Song of Simeon) a setting from Luke 2:29-32 which tells of a Holy man who had been promised "that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (RSV), whereupon when the child Jesus was presented in the temple, Simeon declared "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace..." (RSV). This text, in French, was first heard in the simplified unison version and then in a four-part a cappella arrangement. It was sung exquisitely by SONAM with marvelous balance and phrasing.
The program continued with a five-voice a cappella setting from Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Crecquillon (1505-57). Beginning with a gorgeous melismatic phrase on the Hebrew letter MEM, followed by text from Lamentations 2:13, this work was magnificently performed by the choir under Friedman's masterful leadership.
Louis Lewandowski was a Jewish cantor, choral conductor, and composer of synagogue music in the nineteenth century (1821-94). He was the first Jew to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. He did much to enrich synagogue music through his role as choir leader of the New Synagogue in Berlin and much of his music is still in use in synagogues around the world. "Enosh" (Psalm 103:15-17) is the psalmist's reflection on the brevity of life contrasted with the everlasting goodness of the Lord. Lewandowski beautifully underscores this with his phrasing. The choir supported the text as well with their realization of the rich romantic harmonies and dynamic phrasing.
"Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda" (Bless the Lord, O my soul) by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov is a well-known anthem from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It is often sung by church choirs and community choruses in an English translation and is the epitome of the ethereal Russian choral tradition. It was sung in Russian with warmth of soul and strength of faith undergirding the performance and enriching the listeners.
English Renaissance composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1665) composed the music for a setting of 2 Samuel 18:33, which describes David's abject grief at learning of the death of his son, Absalom. "When David Heard" gave the SONAM chorus and Friedman another opportunity to display their mastery of Renaissance music.
The first half of the concert closed with "Flanders Fields," Paul Aitken's tender and touching setting of John McCrae's eulogy for WW I soldiers. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier who had died in the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem and the poppies it refers to are the best known and most powerful symbols to come out of that terrible conflict. The choir sang it beautifully as a hymn of commitment and hope.
After an intermission, the one featured work was With Perfect Faith (A Holocaust Cantata) by Friedman himself. For this occasion, the performing artists were Marianne Roberts (deceased, recorded earlier) as narrator in memoriam, cantor and mezzo soprano Jacquie Marx, cellist Meredith Graham, oboist Price, pianist Lynch, and the SONAM Chorus, all conducted by the composer. The piece is divided into six sections which include 29 separate specific numbers in a variety of musical forms and settings.
Section I – "A Sacred Realm" – This segment establishes the pitiable uniqueness of the holocaust victim. We who are permitted to come close to the gate cannot know the astonishing terror of the dissonant train whistle when the children of Israel are crammed in a sealed freight car.
Section II – "What can we say?" – It is a challenge to know all the things that were lost in the holocaust – money, beds, songs, stories, air, bags, babies, hair, shall I continue? The composer introduced into this segment excruciating dissonance – there is no other way.
Section III – "An Oath to Remember" – "I have taken an oath: yo remember it all, to remember, not once to forget! Lest from this we learned nothing" – Abraham Shlonsky (spoken by the narrator).
Section IV – "Kadish" – This segment is focused on the experience of Jewish prayer: "Blessed be His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever," is an affirmation of faith even in the most trying of times. The audience participates, and the segment concludes with a powerful rendition by Cantor Marx of Psalm 88:1-4 "O Lord, God of my deliverance..."; joined by cello, oboe, and piano, the words took flight.
Section V – "El Meleh Rachamin" – This segment includes elements from the Yom Hashoah liturgy. Of note is "Alone," Friedman's awesomely harmonized setting of the poem by Hayim Bialik.
Section VI – "The Mystery Man" – Beginning with a responsive reading by Aaron Zeitland which compares man with beast or angel. "Unlike beast and unlike angel, Man can begin again." It proceeds with a description of a concentration camp wedding. The choir sings a lively tune with a carousel-like accompaniment, which describes the wedding essentials – including, among other things, a rabbi, a ring, a cantor, several cakes, three bars of chocolate, a harmonica, and a set of lookouts. The poem by R. M. Cooper captures the irrepressible spirit of a people who, even in the midst of evil at its worst plants and nurtures seeds of hope.
Friedman and SONAM and Lynch are a marvelous match. SONAM is first-class chorus displaying solid pitch, precise attacks and cut-offs, rich blend of vocal parts, and outstanding ensemble in general. They are a joy to hear! SONAM has much to offer to Triangle audiences, not to mention their admirable generosity.