There are many stunning moments of Jewish and Christian confluence to hear in Thomas Beveridge’s “Yizkor Requiem,” his hour-long piece for chorus and orchestra that builds bridges between two liturgical and spiritual traditions — Judaism and Christianity, as its very title suggests. Yizkor is, of course, the memorial service for the dead and the practice of annually recalling the memory of loved ones in Jewish tradition. A Requiem, too, is a service celebrated in memory of the dead (specifically for those baptized in the Catholic faith) and offered on the day of burial, and occasionally on specific days in the month following the death or on anniversaries or other occasions to remember the departed.
Beveridge, a District-based composer and conductor will lead his 235-member New Dominion Chorale in this, his most personal work, on Sunday, which fittingly is the eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The concert, at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center on the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, will feature Chicago-based Cantor Benjamin Warschawski, soprano Arianna Zukerman — daughter of Israeli-born conductor and violinist Pinchas Zukerman — and mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, performing under the baton of the composer.
How does the son of a church-organist-turned-Episcopal-minister come to write a piece steeped in Jewish liturgical influences from the Yizkor and High Holiday services?
“Even though there’s no Jewish blood in me, as a professional singer I’ve sung in a lot of churches and synagogues,” he said last week. Years ago he became a member of the choir at Alexandria’s Beth El Hebrew Congregation, Beveridge then became a cantorial soloist when the position opened up. He also sang at more traditional congregations including Beth Sholom, when the Orthodox synagogue was still located in the District. There under the tutelage of Cantor Jeffrey Nadel, he heard firsthand “the authentic way the cantors have of singing without instruments and improvising.” Beveridge would frequently accompany Nadel as a second soloist at High Holiday services.
The composer also credits his father for influencing his long and abiding interest in Judaism and in synagogue liturgy. When Lowell Beveridge died in 1993, his son felt no better way to remember him than to compose a piece that honored his father’s lifelong quest for knowledge and understanding. His father did not enter the ministry until mid-life and when he did, he sought to understand Christianity’s roots and connection to Judaism and Jewish liturgical practices. Lowell Beveridge spent two years in Jerusalem exploring Christianity’s deep foundation in Judaism – seeking to find a bridge between the two faiths. In fact, Beveridge recalls that at one point his father considered converting to Judaism, in which he said he found a simplicity of faith and worship, as well as less controversy than in Christian faiths he encountered.
“I call ‘Yizkor Requiem’ ‘a quest for spiritual roots,’ ” Beveridge said reflecting on his father’s journey, “because I wanted to honor my father’s intellectual curiosity and his rather interesting, unorthodox ways of thinking about religion … which led me in the direction of trying to find some commonality between the text of the Requiem mass and the Yizkor service.”
As a cantorial soloist, Thomas Beveridge taught himself Hebrew and learned the services quite well, and as the son of a minister, he felt quite familiar with the traditional Requiem mass, therefore he chose not to consult clergy of either faith while composing the piece. The work, which premiered in 1994 and has been performed worldwide, although not in Israel — intermingles Hebrew and Latin liturgy, matching like-minded passages of both services to moving, some say enlightening, effect. Beveridge found that the duality of Jewish and Christian sources and liturgy has made the most traditional or Orthodox Jews uncomfortable with the composition, although a wide range of listeners of all faiths have found it moving.
A passage recalling the Hebrew Kedushah prayer, where kadosh — holy — is repeated three times, is paired with the triple repetition in Latin of sanctus — holy. The work closes with the recitation of a full Mourner’s Kaddish, which is underscored by the most popular prayer in Christiandom, The Lord’s Prayer.
“I understand why people only write one requiem,” Beveridge said. “It’s a very personal thing to put together. It takes quite a bit of time. Nobody has been untouched by the death of a loved one. And [‘Yizkor Requiem’] seems to provide a certain experience that people are looking for. People do connect with this.”
“Yizkor Requiem,” April 7, 4 p.m., Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall, Alexandria Campus, Northern Virginia Community College, 3001 North Beauregard St., Alexandria. Tickets $5 (students)-$30, available online at newdominion.org; at Foxes Music, 416 S. Washington Street in Falls Church; or at the door.