For more than 20 years, Kol Dodi, the community-wide Jewish choir, has been celebrating the range of Jewish music, from Bernstein to Lewandowski to Rossi. With about 60 members from towns and synagogues across the area and the Jewish denominations, the choir was founded through the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest (a forerunner to the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life) by Cantors Rikki Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange and Joel Caplan of Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
The choir will be celebrating its 20th anniversary (somewhat belatedly) at Shir Energy! — a gala concert to be held on Sunday, June 9, at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston. They will be joined by Voices in Harmony, Kol Dodi alumni, accompanist Dave Schlossberg, and special guests Cantors Benjie-Ellen Schiller and Leon Sher.
In honor of the ensemble’s anniversary, Caplan and Lippitz agreed to share their picks for the “Top Five Composers of Jewish Choral Music of All Time” — along with the caveat that the list is meant to represent the arc of Jewish choral music over the centuries.
Salamone Rossi (1570-1630): The earliest Jewish composer working in the European art music tradition, he was in residence in the court of Mantua, Italy. Unlike his contemporaries, he composed music not for the church but for the synagogue. “The sound of Jewish music he created was different from everyone who came before him because he brought the history of Renaissance music [and Western art music] into Jewish music for the first time,” said Lippitz. In addition, he was among the first composers anywhere to write madrigals with instrumental accompaniment and trio-sonatas.
Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894): The first Jewish student accepted into the Berlin Academy of Arts and the first known synagogue choir master. His compositions are still widely used and can be found in most cantorial libraries. Lippitz and Caplan singled out his “Hallelujah, Psalm 150.” “His setting is famous all over the Jewish world and parallels Handel’s ‘Messiah’ — l’havdil, as we say,” said Caplan. “It’s as rousing and regal as the ‘Messiah’ and representative of the great European composers of Jewish music in the 19th century.” Among his widely used works are settings for “Tzadik Katamar” and the ubiquitous melody for Friday night Kiddush.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): “Many people don’t know that Leonard Bernstein wrote Jewish music,” said Lippitz. “His ‘Chichester Psalms’ is Jewish music at the highest level, and his jazzy compositional style influenced others like Jack Gottlieb and Stephen Sondheim.” Beyond its “grandeur and extraordinary quality,” Bernstein’s psalm settings include “not only the broad and grand classical music sounds but also the rhythms of jazz, and the modern use of dissonance,” said Lippitz. “It’s also got an incredible diversity of themes.”
Ben Steinberg (b. 1930): Lippitz calls the work of one of the most prolific living composers of Jewish music “beautiful, lyrical, dramatic, extremely well written, equally useful for synagogue and concert stage…. His setting of ‘Shalom Rav’ was as clear a choice as Lewandowski’s ‘Hallelujah,’” said Lippitz. “It’s one of the classics of Jewish choral music, universally known by any singer who has sung with a Jewish choir in the United States.”
David Burger (b. 1950): In the same way Bernstein incorporated jazz into classical and Jewish music, Burger, who played guitar with Richie Havens before turning to Jewish music, incorporates contemporary rock. “It’s serious classical music with a serious pop sound,” said Caplan. “He was shaped by the popular music of the 1970s.” While Steinberg’s “Shalom Rav” remains “lyrical” and even “sweet,” said Caplan, Burger’s version juxtaposes the sweetness with music “that becomes more demanding, as if the people are saying to God, ‘We’re doing our part, so where are you?’”