When it comes to Hanukka music, what first springs to most people’s minds are the time-honored favorites: “Hanukka, O Hanukka,” “The Dreidel Song,” “Mi Y’malel,” and, of course, the traditional liturgical poem, “Ma’oz Tsur,” or “Rock of Ages.”
So when Frank Abrahams first decided to organize a Hanukka concert 10 years ago at Rider University’s Westminster College of the Performing Arts, where he is director of music education, he found it a challenge to add some diversity to the holiday repertoire.
“It couldn’t just be children’s tunes — wonderful as those can be; it had to be in a class with the great Christmas classics,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview last week.
Abrahams met that challenge. He commissioned Hanukka-themed pieces from colleagues and outside musicians, much of it now published and distributed nationally by Transcontinental Music.
He recalled that the first concert in Bristol Chapel on Westminster’s Princeton campus drew a capacity audience of around 200 people — which only meant that that he had to do it again. And again.
“Unfortunately, it was a great success,” he joked.
The fruits of those efforts will be on display again at this year’s Westminster Hanukka concert, on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The program will include four different takes on “Ma’oz Tsur,” including the premiere of a brand-new work for piano, cello, and chorus by Westminster professor Jay Kawarsky, specially commissioned for this concert.
Last year, Abrahams had decided to call a halt to the Hanukka concerts and turn his energy to other projects.
But then this past summer, Doreen Blanc, Rider’s director corporate and foundation relations, announced that the Daniel and Ethel Hamburger Music Fund had commissioned a piece of Jewish music from Westminster. It was to honor the memory of Ethel Hamburger, who was a cellist with The Cleveland Orchestra.
Kawarsky, who sometimes performs at his synagogue, Congregation Beth El of Bucks County in Yardley, Pa., got the commission, “and we were back in the Hanukka concert business,” Abrahams said.
Abrahams, who will conduct the concert, said it will end with a sing-along of the familiar version of “Ma’oz Tsur.” “You can’t have a holiday concert without a sing-along,” he said.