MILWAUKEE — Quite some time ago, a member of the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale said the local singers should take on an usually difficult piece.
We’re not ready, Artistic Director Enid Bootzin Berkovits told Merzy Eisenberg, the chair of the group’s music selection committee.
Then, Eisenberg said it again. She said it again and again and again. She said it for about 10 years, in all.
“I would just say, ‘Not yet. We’re not quite ready for this,’” Bootzin Berkovits recalled.
Now, for their big annual concert, the Chorale is to give it a go. For the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein (Z”L), they’ll sing his Chichester Psalms with the Kol Zimrah choir of Chicago and several Wisconsin cantors. The free concert is set for Tuesday, May 29, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Shalom, 7630 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Fox Point.
“The Chorale really has grown through the years,” Bootzin Berkovits explained. “We have had some complicated music through the last few years and we have risen to the challenge. I felt the Chorale was ready to take on this challenge.”
Eisenberg is ecstatic: “It’s the most gorgeous piece of music — choir and orchestra — in my opinion.”
Eisenberg actually lobbied for the piece through years of chasing it as a groupie. She and her husband have traveled cross-country to see renditions of it, including a recent trip to see family in Washington, D.C., paired with a train ride to Philadelphia to see and hear Chichester Psalms.
Eisenberg, who is corresponding secretary on the board and Bootzin Berkovits’s administrative assistant, is happy that she can now finally sing it, after so much practice for the upcoming concert.
Chichester Psalms is all in Hebrew, but that’s not why it’s hard. Most of the Chorale’s singing is in Hebrew.
The piece is difficult to perform in part because it has rapidly changing notes, mixed with slower, simpler parts, said Eisenberg, a retired Hebrew teacher in Whitefish Bay.
“Leonard Bernstein’s music is exciting and complicated. He doesn’t follow the norm, what we would consider the normal rules of composition,” Bootzin Berkovits said. “There are always surprises coming in his harmonies and how he writes. Which makes the music exciting.”
Bernstein was one of the first American-born conductors to lead world-class orchestras, according to Biography.com. He composed the score for the musical “West Side Story.” It was actually originally conceived as “East Side Story,” about conflicts between Jews and Catholics, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Bernstein died in 1990.
Chichester Psalms, utilizing the text of several Psalms, premiered in 1965 in New York. The piece is jazzy and contemporary, yet accessible, according to The Leonard Bernstein Office of New York. Bernstein characterized it as “popular in feeling,” with “an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.”
About the Chorale
The Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale was started by former Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun Cantor Ronald Eichaker, according to Harriet Matz, the Chorale’s librarian. It’s her role to make sure singers have their music and she serves as an archivist.
Bootzin Berkovits remembers Eichaker and the genesis of the Chorale, a quarter-century ago: “This was his vision. He called me one day and said let’s meet, this is what I’d like to do.” She was a founder of the Chorale, assisting Eichaker, but she said Eichaker made it happen.
At first they were an informal group, coming together sometimes to sing in the community. But when the conservative movement’s cantorial assembly was held in Milwaukee in 1994, it generated excitement and the excitement prompted action. The Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale was soon born, circa 1995.
“And we went from there, kind of grew and grew,” Matz said. They performed at nursing homes, synagogues and more.
There’s been some travel over the last two decades-plus. The Chorale has sung at Yad Vashem, the Western Wall and in New York at Lincoln Center with the The North American Jewish Choral Festival, among other spots.
The Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale is an independent nonprofit, doing its own fundraising. Music rights and travel can get expensive.
A grant will make it possible to bring the Chorale to smaller Jewish communities in Wisconsin next year.
Members say they just love participating, singing beautiful songs and that the group feels like family. They’ve sung at Chorale members’ funerals, but have been together for good things too.
“The Chorale has been a tremendous source of joy and inspiration for me,” said Sharon Fedderly, a clinical psychologist who joined in 1994. “For me, Jewish music connects me spiritually as well as to our people and our history.”
“The experience of blending voices and making beautiful music is so moving and therapeutic. No matter how long or how stressful my workday has been, I try to make it to almost all rehearsals. And though I usually walk into rehearsals looking rushed and tired, I always walk out of rehearsals rejuvenated and happy.”
Rehearsal is once a week, usually on Monday nights at Brass Bell Music Store in Glendale. As they get closer to a concert, they’ll typically add a Thursday night practice. There’s also an expectation that members will practice at home. But they don’t mind – they love it, as does their director.
“I love Jewish music,” said Bootzin Berkovits, who has been doing this now for about 25 years. “I love working with the Chorale.”
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How to go
What: Annual free concert of the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale — this year honoring 70 years of Israel and the work of Leonard Bernstein. With the Kol Zimrah choir of Chicago and Wisconsin cantors.
Where: Congregation Shalom, 7630 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Fox Point. 414-352-9288.
When: May 29, 7:30 p.m