The 45-member no-audition community choir Kolot HaLev strives to share the richness and beauty of Jewish liturgical music traditions. So It didn’t come as a surprise, then, when at their 11th annual performance Sunday, they invited the audience to join in, teaching the refrain for “Bore ‘ad Ana” (“Creator Until When”) in both Hebrew and Ladino – the Judeo-Spanish spoken by some Sephardic Jews.
At the performance at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, the choir, directed by Cantor Ramon Tasat directs, gave voice — in harmony, counterpoint, unison, solos – to the tradition of Jewish liturgical music with a French accent and frequently a distinctive French sound.
Tasat, who serves as hazzan of Shirat HaNefesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, curated a wide-ranging program of liturgical Jewish music reaching back to the 13th century, as well as selections from 18th- and 19th-century composers and contemporary pieces, a number of them arranged by Tasat.
The program opened with a trio of selections from the biblical Psalms, sung in Hebrew – including “Mizmor LeDavid,” Psalm 29, a popular Shabbat hymn. Composed by Samuel Naumbourg, Bavarian-born but associated with the Great Synagogue in Paris, featured a rising crescendo of voices from the choir to satisfying effect.
Later a rendition of “Min haMetzar” — “From the Straits (I Call You)” Psalm 118 — starts with a foreboding bass section, before the lighter, higher voices respond with “Ozi v’Zimrat Yah” — “My Strength With a Song.”
One of the oldest synagogues in France, the Carpentras Synagogue in the southeast was built in 1367. It was represented by a version of the seven wedding blessings — the sheva berakhot — sung by Tasat from his conductor’s podium, and then followed by the full chorus.
A Spanish/Portuguese melody for “Shirat HaYam” or “Song of the Sea” featured the French-speaking Rochambeau Choir, led by conductor and opera singer Simon Charette. The song, “Benissez Nous” — “Bless Us” — was performed in French but concludes with the Hebrew declaration “Hodu l’Adonai ki tov” “Let us thank God for all that’s good” — liturgy sung on Jewish festivals including Sukkot.
For a contemporary pairing, Tasat matched “Shahar Avakeshkha” — (“At Dawn I Seek You”) by 11th-century poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol — with the popular Edith Piaf song, “L’Hymne a l’amour,” merging the ancient Hebrew with a well-known 20th-century French song.
Following that, a traditional Christmas song, “La March de Roi Mages,” was finely sung by the Rochambeau Choir. If it sounded familiar, composer Georges Bizet used the melody in his “L’Arlesienne” overture. This piece was followed by a traditional Chanukah hymn, “Ma’oz Tzur” — “Rock of Ages” — as the two choirs joined together in a rich melding of voices, vocal and religious traditions.
With its focus on Jewish music from France and its adjacent cultures, including Spain/Portugal, Belgium, Morocco and beyond, the afternoon demonstrated the richness of liturgical music beyond typical Ashkenazi fare that most American-born Jews recognize.