May 2007

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Harold Evans musical leader of Nashirah.
News and Opinion

The Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia is Philadelphia’s high art singing group for performing Jewish choral music.

-- John Oliver Mason

Cynthia Silber is the President of the Board of Director of Nashirah, Hebrew for “We Shall Sing,” and she sings soprano in the chorale. By profession she is a gynecologist and an associate dean at Thomas Jefferson University. She recalls, “I started with a small group of people back in the fall of 2002, in my house. I have been singing in my synagogue choir for several years along with a number of other people.”

“A number of us,” says Silber, “have been in synagogue choirs, and we were really looking for a way to sing Jewish choral music in a high-quality setting. Synagogue choirs are community choirs, and most of them are wonderful organizations. They’re usually non-auditioned, and their mission is usually to give people a place to sing. But those of us who have been in them for a number of years knew of other choirs in many other cities with substantial Jewish populations,” such as the Zamir Chorale in New York and the Zamir Chorale in Boston.

Silber adds, “These are auditioned high-quality chorales that focus on exclusively Jewish repertoire, and they’re real treasures for the Jewish community in those cities. Philadelphia did not have an ensemble like that.” In the fall of 2002, she continues, “We began a series of community meetings with people that we thought might be interested in helping form a auditioned, high-quality Jewish chorale that was community based” in the Philadelphia area.

In the spring of 2003, the group formed a board of directors, incorporated as a 501c3 group, and recorded a CD of their performances to attract singers and donors. Silber explained, “Through word of mouth, we continued to grow slowly to about fifteen people. We performed here and there, and in the summer of 2004 we were invited to perform at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, which was a signal honor for a new ensemble.”

The chorale asked the Gershman YM/YWHA, on Broad and Pine streets in Philadelphia, if they could use the Y for rehearsal space; Nashirah is now a constituent organization of the Gershman Y, which Silber called “this wonderful cultural and arts organization in the Jewish community.”

As for funding, Silber says, “We have several funding streams. Our choir members pay dues, so that takes care of music, and other small expenses. We solicit, and we have a lot of friends who send us contributions. We’ve gotten two $5,000.00 Pennsylvania state grants so far, and we’ve been given a commitment for a third (grant) for next year.” Silber praises the dedication of the group’s members, calling them “the most wonderful group of people. The singers come from an hour and a half away. Every Sunday night, they come in the rain and sleet. They sign an agreement of commitment and they drive from vacations to be here on time for rehearsal. They feel this is one of the most important things in their life.”

Members of Nashirah are of many occupations, including doctors, attorneys, computer consultants, secretaries, a midwife, and even students. “Nashirah is very central to all of them,” says Silber. “We created something that resonates very strongly with the people that we have, and that shows in out performance.”

Silber describes Nashirah’s mission as "to bring Jewish choral music of the highest quality to the community. We define Jewish music more broadly that a lot of traditional Jewish choirs. We define Jewish music as anything composed by a Jewish composer, regardless of his or her self-identity, or anything that draws from the Tanakh.”

This year Nashirah has done works based on the Psalms, such as "Shir La-Ma’alot" by Salamone Rossi in Hebrew, a part of Felix Mendelssohn’s "Elijah," and the Motet number 29 by Johannes Brahms (based on the fifty-first Psalm) in German.

They have also done works by Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein: "We felt," says Silber, "that their music represents part of the Jewish-American experience, and we feel that the more diverse our repertoire, the more challenged we will be, and the better we will be, and the better singers we will attract."

In thanksgiving, Hallelujah..in awe, Hallelujah...in exultation--Hallelujah!

Nashirah presents its third annual concert "Sing Hallelujah!" on Sunday, May 20, 2007 at 3 p.m.. Rejoice with them as they celebrate the many musical faces of this year's exciting theme in the incomparably beautiful surroundings at Congregation Rodeph Shalom (615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia). Come hear Nashirah Sing Hallelujah! in their signature variety of settings and styles; from Psalms to swing; from Baroque to Broadway. General Admission is $30 and parking is free. To purchase tickets, visit their website or call 1-888-901-6274.

Debbie Cohen, who sings soprano for Nashirah, said of how she discovered the group, “One of the singers asked me to be a part of this. I’ve been a musician my whole life, and I’ve been looking for a dedicated ensemble that performs Jewish music, having come from several other ensembles in my past.” Cohen agrees the group has a strong sense of community, saying, "We all have a common purpose here, to create music, and to create good will through music. It’s an opportunity to bond with other people that have the same interests we have."

Linda Lempert, an alto, says what drew her to the group was “the opportunity to sing Jewish-themed music on a professional level. I’ve sung in other choirs and we don’t get to do things that are very Jewish, so this is why I like it."

Toby Winter, a soprano, says, “I am the coordinator of a choir in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and I have a great love of Jewish music, and I was in invited to join the group about five years ago. I think it is a fabulous experience and opportunity. I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and I feel I’m able to experience a musical education on that level in this group."

Howard Winter, Toby’s husband and a tenor, says, “The truth of the matter is, I go to work so I can do this. This is a joy (singing with Nashirah), this is what living is about, making beautiful music, and at a very high level."

Art Feldman, who sings baritone, says, "I have been singing since I was a kid, all through high school and through college, through medical school and beyond. This was the kind of group I was looking for all these years –-- high level, but Jewishly oriented. It is very demanding, but it’s fun, it transports you to something completely different every week."

Harold Evans is the artistic director of Nashirah. "I spent a number of years as Associate Director of the Virginia Opera,” he says, “and did quite a bit of conducting there. I’ve done shows like Porgy and Bess, Madame Butterfly, that kind of thing. I spent a few years doing forty concerts as Resident Director of the Virginia Symphony, and I was the Associate Director of the Des Moines Metro Opera,” where he lead performances of Die Rosenkavalier, Peter Grimes, and Boris Godunov. He keeps a studio in Philadelphia and another in New York, where he coaches singers and teaches conducting.

How did Evans get involved in Nashirah? He explained, "I was introduced to [Cynthia Silber] by a mutual friend, she was in need of a music director, and she asked me if I’d be willing to do this. It started out as a temporary thing, and I fell in love with these people. This is only my first year with them, and I promised I’d stay on.”

After having the opportunity to speak with the members of Nashirah, it became clear that they are very dedicated to singing with, and being part of, such a special group.

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