When Dr. Allan Friedman decided to set a Shabbat service with his own music, he engaged himself in an unexpected labor of love. The completed work includes a cast of many; Friedman, an active member of the community, was equipped to furnish. He is both conductor of the choral group SONAM and a member of Judeo Reform Congregation where the premiere of his composition, Erev Shabbat and Torah Service for chorus, children’s choir and instruments took place. It was performed by SONAM: Singers of New and Ancient Music, and Kidznotes‘ Copland Choir for children with Sarah Bader conducting. Jane Lynch accompanied on piano.

Friedman’s composition includes solos for a cantor or leader, instrumentation for a typical congregation (guitar, percussion, two violins, one cello, and an assortment of winds), and congregational singing with a vast number of styles (from simple melody, to klezmer and New Orleans’s style jazz). Well suited for the new and ancient-style music, SONAM sang the ancient texts exquisitely. Members of the congregation stepped up to the bat, singing solos and playing in a pick-up orchestra.

The service includes settings of 22 readings of prayers and poems found in Mishkan T’filah (prayer book). Although the evening’s concert performance was not literally a service, it was an appropriate introduction to the sacred rituals of the ancient religion. Except for a very brief pause to stretch, the music was performed from start to finish. To read about the Shabbat click here.

The most effective pieces for creating a sacred space were those set with traditional harmony. Two that tugged at my heartstrings were “Ahavat Olam” (Everlasting Love) with text by an anonymous writer, and “Sh’ma” (“Hear, O Israel,” with texts from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Nehemiah 9:5). SONAM’s blend was perfect and the diction exemplary.

But Jewish music for the Shabbat is not all about sadness or remembrance. The service included text and music that evoked great joy, as in “Mi Chamocha” (“Who is like you?”  from Exodus 15:11, 2, 18; Jeremiah 31:10). Here, the percussion and integrated rhythm of the songs make the piece dance-like. The skillfully played alto saxophone solo from “L’chah Dodi” (“Come Meet the Bride”) with text by Shlomo HaLevi Alkkabetz was dazzling.

The program notes were written so that individuals did not stand out. But as a witness, I am compelled to lift up a few. Benjamin Gerhardt’s violin playing was superb, Darren Muellerr’s saxophone playing made my heart sing, and Katie Paul Friedman performed on an assortment of percussion instruments with great precision. The children sang difficult Hebrew text with excellent diction and great heart. If only our composer had written their parts in a higher tessitura so we could have heard the angelic sound of young singers.   

In his notes, Friedman writes “The addition of music for some of the prayers from the Torah service is intended to augment the experience . . .” Judging from their enthusiastic response, the congregation and visitors were clearly moved. It was a clear night, lit up by stars – an exceptionally beautiful evening.

Donations from the SONAM concert benefited Kidznotes and El Sistema – inspired music programs for underserved children in Durham and Raleigh.