Big. Beautiful. Inspiring.
Those were the expectations given in the introductory remarks at the concert of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, performing the music of Rabbi Michel Twerski, on June 25, 2017, at the Historic Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.
Bull’s eye. Bull’s eye. Bull’s eye.
It was already a given that the concert, combining the niggunim of Rabbi Twerski, the orchestral arrangements of Yisroel Lamm, and the performance of the world-class Milwaukee Symphony was a big deal. Orchestral performances of Chasidic melodies are not an everyday event. The concert was also a big deal in terms of the audience – nearly 1,000 people, including some who had come from across the United States and beyond – and the amount of volunteer work that went into making the evening happen.
But “beautiful” and “inspiring” could only be proven in the music of the evening and the reaction of those who were present.
As soon as the symphony began the first piece, a march written for “Kel Adon,” it was clear the proof was there when it came to beauty. Under the baton of Yaniv Dinur, the assistant conductor of the symphony, the orchestra performed flawlessly. And the lyrical melodies of Rabbi Twerski were converted by Lamm into rich, lively and entrancing pieces, making generous use of the horn, wind and percussion sections of the orchestra. The performance was entirely focused on the instrumentalists, without any singers involved. But the messages in the words of each piece still came through in moving ways.
The orchestra performed a dozen pieces by Rabbi Twerski, counting a medley of his wedding sons as one piece. The compositions ranged from ballads to marches, from works composed a half century ago to new works few in the audience had heard previously. Included were two new pieces written for the Shabbos song, “Yedid Nefesh.”
The concluding piece of the program was a complex and lyrical composition by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, brother of Rabbi Michel Twerski, written for “Mimkomo.”
But that wasn’t actually the conclusion. The symphony performed a short encore and then, to the surprise of many in the audience, Rabbi Michel Twerski came on stage. He expressed his appreciation to all who worked on the concert, the musicians, and the audience, and told the story of how a simple Jew found that the real treasures in life were within him and his home and not somewhere else in the world. He expressed his gratitude that, with the help of Hashem, he had been the conduit for musical treasures that were now known throughout the Jewish world and that Rabbi Lamm and the symphony had transformed them into more than he ever realized they were.
And was the evening inspiring? Yes. Just ask anyone who was there. (Or, we hope, wait for the orchestral performances to become available on recordings, as is intended.)
In a talk on the Shabbos before the concert at Congregation Beth Jehudah in Milwaukee, the home base for Rabbi Twerski, one of his sons, Rabbi Ephraim Twerski of Chicago, said that one of the great things about his father’s music is that “he really means it.” When Rabbi Twerski writes or sings a niggun, it’s not just because it’s nice to listen to. It’s because he wants to convey the meaning of the text of the songs in a meaningful, deep way.
In a talk on the day of the concert, Rabbi Michel Twerski offered thoughts on what music should do to enhance people’s spiritual lives and their involvement in Jewish life. He said he hopes his music isn’t only matter of providing sweet listening. The real goal is for the music to motivate people spiritually, for people to take the melodies and build on them in their own lives, and for them to renew their efforts to better themselves.
The concert became a beautiful and inspiring way to deliver the rabbi’s message. And reactions in following days can be summed up by saying: Message received.
Alan Borsuk is a member of the rabbi’s congregation, Beth Jehudah on Milwaukee’s west side.