MasterVoices’ Riveting O How Good Concert at Central Synagogue

On March 23, MasterVoices chorus, led by its Artistic Director Ted Sperling, presented O How Good, a performance of Jewish sacred music at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan. The program included two works of traditional Jewish liturgy set by master composers – Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh / Sacred Service and Kurt Weill’s Kiddush – as well as the world premiere of And the Sun Goes Up, a new work by Israeli-born composer Daniel Rein, commissioned by MasterVoices. The program was dedicated to honoring the life of MasterVoices board member, Lois Conway.

The evening opened with Kurt Weill’s Kiddush, which Cantor David Putterman of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue had commissioned for the 1946 special new music Sabbath eve service. In 1943, Cantor Putterman had started an annual program of commissioning well-known and promising younger composers from the general music world to write for the liturgy. Weill and Cantor Putterman decided on a setting of the kiddush—the prayer and b’rakha recited on Sabbath eve (and, with text variants, on the eves of the Three Festivals and of Rosh Hashanah) over a cup of wine to affirm the Divine sanctification of the day. 

MasterVoices presents O How Good Concert at Central Synagogue

Weill composed Kiddush for tenor, chorus, and organ during the same time frame in which he was working on his opera Street Scene, and there are some similarities between the two in certain rhythms and accompaniments. In Kiddush, Weill subtly dressed the text into his own distinctive theatrical sound and fusion of popular styles; some choral passages resemble certain Broadway melodic preferences of the time. The soloist’s phrases generally adhere to a traditional cantorial flow, even though they are also delicately imbued with jazz and blues colors.

Daniel Mutlu, the Senior Cantor of Central Synagogue, who is also a member of the choir at Trinity Church on Wall Street, brought his focused, radiant tenor voice to the piece, endowing it with elegant legato. His singing conveyed nobility and humbleness as he spun phrases of generous sound steeped in awe and reverence. The chorus responded with its own flowing harmonic unity in an ethereal sequence of soaring phrases and melismas that created an atmosphere at once sacred and dreamlike.

In an outburst of glorious, life-affirming rhythms Daniel Rein’s And the Sun Goes Up made it difficult to sit still. The chanting repetitions invoked ceaseless motion and toil, at times, but also constant devotion. The entire musical setting appealed to that inner core, that part in us that is and has always been viscerally connected to rhythm and incantation since the most ancient rituals. Rhythm was the star here and the chorus molded its splendid sounds to it, in crisp chanting, clear enunciation, and impressive crescendos. This was an exhilarating piece; the combination of the alluring hypnosis and lifeblood of its rhythms and tonalities pulled the listener into a kind of ritualistic pulsating trance that was hard to let go of when it ended. This piece should enter standard repertoire; it exerts a unifying, dynamizing, cathartic effect on the audience that continues long after it ends.

Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch created his Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) for a Reform congregation in San Francisco in the 1930s, but he scored it for a large chorus, baritone, and orchestra. In Bloch’s words, the Avodath Hakodesh “is a setting of Hebrew texts used in the Reform temples of America. Most of them belong to the Sabbath morning service, and they originate from the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Proverbs, and other sources of Jewish spiritual patrimony. . . . Musically, the work falls into five parts, following the liturgy, the whole to be performed without interruption.” The piece is eclectic in its musical influences; one can hear echoes of Brahms, Vaughan Williams, folk idioms, among others. It has inspired other composers as, according to the Milken Archive Liner Notes, “the first successful and most enduring exploration of the Hebrew liturgy for serious artistic possibilities and universal applications.” 

MasterVoices Chorus, baritone Justin Austin, and Maestro Ted Sperling in O How Good Concert at Central Synagogue 

Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh begins with the organ in delicate melismas, followed by the graceful and supple voice of baritone Justin Austin. The spiritual mood is generated instantly from the very first words “Ma Tovu” (O How Good). Throughout the piece, Austin modulates his voice between sunshine and darkness, from impressive forte to nuanced pianissimo, displaying flexibility and a wide range of emotional colors. The second part, “Kedusha,” offers some particularly caressing, haunting colors, both from soloist and chorus complemented by David Strickland’s dramatic majestic organ sounds, exquisitely delineating soft chromaticism. There are a few soprano and alto solos sung by chorus members Erin Brittain and Suzanne Schwing. Brittain’s crystal soprano ascends gorgeously, emerging from the chorus like a voice of purity. Schwing’s rich voice invites the listener to revel in its beauty and comforting warmth.

Part III proves especially stirring; it is meant to accompany the Torah being taken out of the Ark. It begins with the sublime emergence of organ sound from the silence, establishing a meditative, mystical atmosphere, leading to the sacred moment of “Toro Tzivoh” and into a glorious finale. During Part IV, the Torah is taken back into the Ark as the music turns ever more soulful and the chorus masterfully interlaces its voices in phrases of “Shalom.” The final part includes English text and a rousing reprise of “Tsur Yisroel” as well as a benediction from Austin.

In this magnificent and technically difficult program, the MasterVoices chorus displays an extraordinary range of vocal capabilities under the skillful and sensitive conducting of Maestro Ted Sperling. That organist David Strickland is a master of his instrument shines through in both of his roles as supportive partner to the chorus and virtuoso soloist. Daniel Rein’s piano playing resounds clear and vibrant. Praise goes to Shai Wetzer on percussion and Adriana Harrison on timpani for their outstanding mastery of rhythm and timing. 

A moving and uplifting evening that will remain in memory as a truly inspirational experience.

Photos by Joe Carrotta
Top: Tenor Daniel Mutlu and MasterVoices Chorus in O How Good Concert at Central Synagogue

About Maria-Cristina Necula (184 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.