Beginning and Ending With Music

The musical week got off to a good start last Saturday evening with a concert by the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, of which I have been a member since it was founded almost 25 years ago. I have no qualms about defining Saturday night (Motzei Shabbat – מוצאי שבת – the end of the Sabbath) as the start of the week. For my non-Jewish readers, I should explain that in Jewish law, the day starts the evening before (“and it was evening and it was morning, the first day”). Thus the first day of the new week starts on Saturday evening, with the end of the Sabbath.

Our concert took place in St. Andrew’s Church – which, for those interested, belongs to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland – a simple, elegant building overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. This was by no means the first time we have appeared there, so we knew, from bitter experience, that although the acoustics are excellent, it was also likely to be extremely cold. Although the heating – such as it is – is usually turned on during concerts, it is rarely in operation when we arrive 2 hours or so before the concert is due to start, for rehearsals and balance checks. While this is  tolerable in summer, in winter, the cold from the stone floor seeps through one’s bones.

To surmount this difficulty, Orna had the brilliant idea of substituting pashminas for the light grey chiffon scarves usually worn by the ladies of the choir. I understand (from my reading of “Bridget Jones’ Diary“) that a genuine pashmina is (or was) something of a status symbol.  However, fake pashminas can be purchased in the bazaars of the Old City and from many low-cost stores all over town, for as little as 20 shekels. They won’t keep you warm, though – certainly not in the Arctic conditions of St. Andrew’s. In the event, last Saturday night was particularly cold, and although the day started off sunny, by evening a steady drizzle was falling. Even my (perfectly genuine, 70% cashmere wool, 30% silk) pashmina was not going to suffice and – for only the second or third  time in my concert career – I had to resort to wearing a sweater (albeit an elegant one) and a jacket, and even high-heeled boots in order to ward off the chill. It wasn’t enough and by the end of the evening, my feet felt like blocks of ice and I couldn’t feel my toes. The audience, those sixty or so brave souls who braved the elements, kept their coats on.

What did we sing? A fairly eclectic mix of music ranging from 16th-century polyphony to contemporary Israeli and American music and  20th century settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy from the Dane, Niels Lacour and the  Hungarian György Orban.  Clément Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaulx followed hard on the heels of the youthful Fauré’s prizewinning setting of Le Cantique de Jean Racine. Baroque psalm settings by Hassler and Pitoni were followed by Zvi Avni’s take on Psalm 150 in the original Hebrew (the 3rd psalm in this recording, made last year, also in St. Andrew’s). Contemporary American choral music was also represented, with a lyrical piece by Morten Lauridsen, Sure on this Shining Night (to words by James Agee)  and Eric Whitacre’s searing, heart-rending  version of David’s lament on the death of Absalom, When David Heard. Countless composers have set these particular verses from II Samuel 18:33 to music, but I have never heard a setting more gut-wrenching.  Scored in parts  for as many as seventeen voices, it is also extremely difficult to sing and can leave both choir and audience physically and mentally exhausted.

We rounded off the evening with a couple of African-American  spirituals


and, in response to audience demand, a saucy Renaissance period French ditty for an encore.

The week ended no less musically,  with a trip to the Israel Opera in Tel Aviv on Thursday. This gave me the opportunity to dither about what to wear and to change my mind several times, before getting all dolled up in a grey wool mini-dress, high-heeled boots (it was threatening to rain again – and did so)  and a new, deep mauve pashmina (fake, this time – but such a pretty colour ;-)). Kurt Weill’s anti-capitalist satire Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), to lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, is more of a musical than an opera, but I enjoyed it greatly – not just the singing and acting but also the staging,  the clever use of lighting, the scenery and the costumes.


I’m rounding off my musical week (even though, technically, it’s already the start of a new week, since it is once again, Motzei Shabbat) by writing this while listening to a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of New York, of a new opera-pastiche, The Enchanted Island, courtesy of the BBC.

Ah, bliss…

About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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4 Responses to Beginning and Ending With Music

  1. Ellen May says:

    My college choir recently performed 2 versions of David’s lament on the death of Absalom – one by Thomas Weelkes and the one by Eric Whitacre which your choir performed. I agree – it’s very difficult to sing, especially if you’re a soprano – and it’s one of the most heart-rending versions I’ve ever heard.
    I enjoyed the performance by the BYU which you linked to, but would love to hear a performance by your own choir, if there’s one available.

    • At this stage, unfortunately, there isn’t a recording available of JOCC performing this piece – unless someone recorded it at the concert last Saturday evening. I’ll ask around and see if maybe friends or family of choir members recorded it or videotaped it.

  2. PHL says:

    Fascinating reading about your choir. I used to sing in a choir myself, when I was much younger. Good to know the choral tradition is alive and kicking in Israel.

  3. Turandot says:

    As you will no doubt have guessed from my handle, I’m an opera buff. I’m not madly keen on Kurt Weill – and I’m not sure one can really call Mahagonny an opera. But I also heard the live broadcast from the Met which you mentioned and wondered what you thought of it?

  4. @Turandot – I enjoyed it, and I understand from a friend who attended a live broadcast at the Cinematheque, that it was quite a feast visually too.

    @PHL – yes, the choral tradition is flourishing, but, as always, there’s a shortage of good male singers, especially tenors 😉

  5. As a Postscript, here’s a review of our concert. If anyone knows of any other online reviews, do please send me the links.

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