An Odyssey in “A” – Richard Steyn SAJAC Magazine Pesach 2012

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An Odyssey in “A”

By Richard Steyn


“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” – The opening line of the Ma Tovu Prayer

Ma Tovu – the stirring, immortal words arranged with even more stirring and magnificent harmonies for Cantor and Choir by the composer whose works were the focal point of the festival – was the piece which close to 300 choristers sang in the Rykestrase Synagogue in Berlin, Germany on December 18th, 2011 as the opener to the Grand Finale of the inaugural Lewandowski Festival. Standing on the stage in front of the Aron Kodesh was the Toronto Jewish Male Choir (TJMC), the 7 other participating choirs lined both sides of the synagogue, the audience in the middle and upstairs. The sound was so spectacular, as the melody and the harmonies reverberated through the room, that many choristers and members of the audience were moved to tears.

For all of us, Ma Tovu will never sound the same again, we will always remember the power of the music and the moment.

This marked the climactic few hours to a journey which started almost a year before, a journey which, for the TJMC, proved to be a triumphant success, not only on an international choral stage, but also as a graduation into a choir which excited and enthralled audiences with its unique musical style, repertoire and stage presence.

Please join me on this journey, it is written with great humility and respect and with enormous gratitude to our supporters and to all the members of the choir, a true band of brothers. The opinions and anecdotes are mine; I am sure that each chorister could easily fill these pages with their own versions and memories of this amazing adventure.

The Beginning

The first email came to me in January 2011. It came from the Synagogal Ensemble Berlin and was written to the Toronto Jewish Male Choir –

“We therefore take this opportunity to ask whether you and your ensemble would be interested in participating in Berlin’s first Louis Lewandowski Festival, which will be held from 16 to 18 December 2011.

Interested! Of course we would be interested, I’m going to make sure we go, my imagination was burning a million ideas in my head! But then, I thought, what if this is just another of the millions of scams which are perpetrated on the Internet and by email every day? So, my reply was more muted, yes we would be interested but please send me a telephone number, I would like to call you to find out more. A few days later I had my first conversation with Nils in Berlin.

It turns out that Nils is not Jewish, he is the head of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and came up with this brilliant idea to provide Sunday shopping for the retail stores. The Berlin City enforces a no Sunday shopping law unless there is an international gathering in the city so by bringing the Jewish choirs to participate in a Jewish choral festival, he was able to circumvent the rule just in time for the December retail rush. Many people asked me whether his plan was successful; in truth I don’t know because the choir was so busy on Sunday that we didn’t go near any stores. But the irony is terrific – a Jewish Choral Festival to help German gentiles shop for Christmas.

The Decision

In his proposal, Nils wrote that the organisers would be raising funds which would cover expenses for the choirs in Berlin for the duration of the festival but that each choir would have to cover the travel cost. As the nominal head of the choir, I knew that funding the entire trip would pose a problem and I was determined not to prevent anyone from undertaking the journey simply on financial grounds.

I also knew that this would be an opportunity of a lifetime and would probably not come our way again. The result was that, while Nils was pressing me to commit to the festival, I was doing a delicate dance to gain as much time as possible to make sure that we had a large enough complement in all 4 voice groups to make the choir fully viable.

We appealed to the community at large for help and were overwhelmed by the generous support, we sang at a concert in June for Chabad of Markham and received a fee, we put on our own concert in conjunction with Kehillat Shaarei Torah in early December and sang  most of our intended German playlist to a full house, a great success musically and financially, we launched our inaugural CD, a live recording of the December concert and we participated in the sale of a beautiful Book of Blessings.

So, with the help of my amazing committee, a gold rush of creative ideas, talent and an immense amount of hard work, the TJMC was able to travel to Berlin with a team of 25, including our redoubtable musical director, Gary Rewald and our formidable, talented and very patient coach and accompanist, Klara Bagley.

The Commitment

Once we had finalised our participation and while we were putting the logistics and finance together, we had to practice. The organisers sent the music for 2 pieces which all 8 choirs would sing together. Both are Lewandowski compositions, Ma Tovu which I referred to earlier and Adon Olam. These would open and close the Grand Finale concert.

In addition, the TJMC would have to sing 2 pieces on our own at that concert and we were allocated another famous Lewandowski piece, Halleluyah as well as Naumborg’s Seu Shearim.

If that wasn’t enough, we, along with each choir, would be allocated a separate venue for a concert on the Saturday night and we would have to entertain our audience for about 90 minutes.

Practices therefore became intense, even fierce. Between Gary and Klara, we would learn and refine each number over and over – in music, there is always room for improvement  and it’s not just about the right notes and harmonies, it’s about breathing, mouthing and musicality.

Each and every member of the choir put their hearts and minds into practising, learning and preparing and, as the weeks, went by, we all felt and heard how much our singing was improving. It was tough but also very satisfying.

The Festival

By Thursday, December 15th, all the choirs had assembled. Headquarters was the Crowne Plaza Hotel and on the evening of that Thursday, all the choirs gathered for a reception in a meeting room. The vibe was amazing, many languages filled the room, friendships were renewed or made and the air of anticipation was palpable. At this time, there had not been any joint practices but suddenly, Regina Yantian, the head of the Berlin choir and the musical director of the Festival, announced that at 10 pm we would stay where we were and sing our 2 massed pieces together. And that’s exactly what happened, a keyboard was brought in, she stood on a chair and we sang Ma Tovu and Adon Olam. I don’t have words to describe the sound and the magic of the moment. The feelings of elation and pride stayed with us from then until we left Berlin and even until today.

On Friday morning we were taken on a bus tour of Berlin. Time was of the essence because  we had to be back in time for Shabbat which starts really early in Berlin in December. The main object of the tour was to get us to the Weissensee  Jewish Cemetery where Louis Lewandowski and his wife,  Helene, are buried. As well, there is a large open area at the entrance to the cemetery with a memorial to Berlin’s Holocaust victims, encircled by stark, stone paving blocks, each inscribed with the names of the Nazi camps. Altogether an overwhelmingly sad reminder of the remorseless cruelty of the Nazis and yet, simultaneously uplifting because they failed, the Jews are there, we stood together, huddling in the cold and rain and then, spontaneously, after the Chazzan had intoned a prayer for the martyrs, we sang Ani Ma’amin [which the Jews of Europe sang on their way to the camps and which became known as THE HYMN OF THE CAMPS] followed gloriously by Ha Tikvah. Many more tears were shed.

The guide on our bus insisted on stopping at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, even though he wasn’t supposed to because of time constraints. Its official title is “Memorial to the Killed Jews of Europe”. Designed by US Architect, Peter Eisenman, it has aroused much debate and controversy, it occupies a large square in downtown Berlin, with dark grey rectangular shapes of varying heights. We walked through the Memorial and observed countless vistas, a changing landscape depending on where you stood.

Johnny Rosin stayed on the bus, this is what he wrote about that extraordinary experience:

“I had a very moving experience on the way to the cemetery.  Our bus stopped at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. When our bus stopped at the Memorial, it was raining, cold and windy, and for some reason or other I decided to stay on the bus while all the other Choristers went out to walk through the Memorial slabs. I watched them as they entered the passages of the Memorial.  All of a sudden as they descended, they all disappeared out of sight completely as though they had been swallowed up by the earth.

I was very emotional and I had this feeling as though 2 million children as well as 4 million adults had been slaughtered and cut down in the prime of their lives with no chance of growing up or surviving.  I sat there with tears of sadness, a feeling of utter grief and distress.  While I was sitting in the bus and meditating, suddenly from nowhere I noticed the heads of all the choristers popping up and appearing from the passages of the Memorial that they had descended into.  As they approached the bus, I had this sensation, a new feeling of  ”Here are the souls of the departed Jews being resurrected into the bodies of newborn Jewish babies that would strengthen the Jewish Nation and keep the faith of Judaism alive forever”.   I once more broke out into tears, but this time it was tears of joy and gladness that the Jews would prove to the  World that “We are Hashem’s chosen people”. I was very happy to have all the choristers back with me on the bus.”

Then we were off to our Hotel to prepare for the official opening which was scheduled to start at 3pm at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue. This is the home of the Berlin Choir, it has only 8 choristers, men and women and the choir is trained and conducted by Regina Yantian. They are all music professionals and the sound they produce is stunning.

The concerts

So far, except for the Thursday night informal practice, we hadn’t sung a note but that was going to end.

On Saturday night, we had been allocated  the prime venue for our individual concert, the Neue Synagoge Berlin – Centrum Judaicum, now a museum but historically the synagogue where Lewndowski worked as the Cantor and composed his music.

We were bussed in way ahead of our 6.30 pm start time, to set up, warm up and not to throw up. To say that we were nervous is an understatement, this was an away game at its worst, a foreign country, an unknown audience and the fear that our playlist would not appeal to those who had paid to hear a choir sing in a more classical sense.

The venue was a hall alongside the magnificent Moorish style synagogue and it looked like it could hold about 150 people. Our guide for the evening was the gorgeous Francesca who was very vague about how many tickets had been sold – when we eventually walked in to take up our positions on the stage, the seats were almost fully occupied.

In the end, our concert was a triumph, we were so keyed up after an emotional couple of days, we had experienced such emotional swings and now it was our turn to entertain in our unique style. Of course, I’m biased because I’m part of this amazing group, but we turned the audience into a smiling, hand clapping, foot stomping group, they sang along when Gary asked them to and they loved what we sang, how we sang it and the eclectic choice of music. And they gave us a standing ovation. There was a gentleman in a wheelchair, Wolfgang, he is a lawyer who had been to South Africa many times and who absolutely went overboard with our Hebrew/Zulu version of Shoshaloza.

Of course, the entire choir was on such an emotional high, we had truly come of age and even, Klara, our esteemed coach exclaimed tearfully, “my babies have graduated”. We were then taken to the Berlin version of the CN Tower, there is a revolving restaurant at the top and all eight choirs were entertained to a dinner and a spectacular view of the city’s multiple vistas.

Sunday morning dawned and we were off to a series of compulsory lectures/workshops which were conducted by various experts in the field of choral music. By then, there were many drooping eyelids and yawns amongst the choristers, we had been on the go non-stop and there were many parties in between. And, the butterflies were back, we still had the grand finale to contend with that night.

And so, we moved to the Rykerstrasse Synagogue, the largest in Germany. It seats about 1200 people. It was desecrated during Kristalnacht but restored in 2007. A magnificent building and a fitting venue for a grand concert featuring Jewish music.

The TJMC was on first that is why we were on the stage for the opening number. We were so nervous, not only were we going to singing in front of a full house, including several German dignitaries, but, more telling, we would have about 250 choristers from the other 7 choirs listening to us and passing judgment  on the quality of our performance. Singing Ma Tovu with the other choirs first was good, it gave us a chance to be more relaxed and to hear ourselves on that stage in real time. And then, we were on our own, the other choirs sat down, Klara took her seat at the piano, Gary walked to the podium and it was time, our time and our opportunity to deliver on all the hard work. Deep breaths, drop the shoulders, keep the binders still, watch Gary and then, the first piano notes of Halleluyah and we were off. Another spectacular success for the TJMC for both Halleluyah and Seu Shearim, warm and sustained applause from an appreciative audience and then we were off to our seats on the side and the next choir(s) took over.

By the time the concert was over, we were all so thrilled with our performance and that we had actually been there, on stage, in Berlin, singing Jewish music with other Jews, in a country which had come so very close to removing every vestige of Judaism from the whole of Europe; the impact was enormous and each of us are left with abiding memories of 4 days filled with so much emotion, high and low, so many thrilling moments, so much overwhelming sadness. This is part of a message I sent to my family from Berlin in the middle of the night:

“It has been a privilege to be here, to sing in memory of our lost families and therefore their descendants who were never born, to reinforce the Jewish presence in Germany and to understand the German’s angst to cleanse their collective souls.”


An email was sent to the TJMC on January 21st by a member of our audience on the Saturday night:

“I listened to your concert in Berlin and simply loved the performance. Fortunately, I bought the CD so I can still listen to the songs from time to time. Please come back to Berlin next year!