The Sacramento Choral Calendar
VOX-CHAI: A Jewish Choral Project - March 22, 2015
by Griffin Toffler
The synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, is modern, open and filled with the afternoon's light, invited into the temple by a wall of south-facing windows. The acoustics bring a sense of immediacy that highlights the serene sounds of the choral group, Vox Musica, whose pure tones and precise harmonies fill the room and envelop the listener from beginning to end. This environment is a fitting tribute to Jewish culture and survival represented by the concert which is the subject of this review; VOX-CHAI: A Jewish Choral Project.
I have never before attended a concert by the group of 11 women directed by Daniel Paulson, Sacramento singer, composer, choral director and founder of Vox Musica. I like what I saw; a young group of singers dedicated to represent the best of the community they live in. They showcase local and contemporary composers, perform at venues that are engaged in the local community, and embrace the many cultures of the Sacramento region. In this case, the spotlight was on Jewish music, augmented by inviting a member of the community to elucidate the historical context of the music.
Reading the biographies of the performers is like reading a portion of the Who's Who of Sacramento area music educators and vocal artists. One of the singers, Heather Razo, was featured as one of the composers.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The concert opened with the reading of a touching poem written by a child in a concentration camp, followed by two traditional folksongs. The pattern of the concert was established; spoken word interspersed with choral offerings. The folksongs were lovely and carefully performed. Personally, I would have liked more of the folk style of the music to come through here, a certain let-it-loose vitality and tonality (the Jewish Folk scale varies slightly from the standard European scale system). I would have also liked more of the innate sense of humor prevalent in Jewish culture. This is not to detract from my admiration that the choir has brought forth this music.
The next reading was an anonymous poem describing the anguish in the ghetto streets during the Nazi regime. "Along the streets come light and ranks of people like a long black ribbon, loomed with gold." I thought it effective that the clothing of the choir reflected back this line in the poem; each singer wearing black from top to bottom with a golden scarf draped at the neck.
"Nerot Dolkim" by Felix Mendelssohn was artfully and beautifully sung by the choir, accompanied on the piano by choir member Heather Razo. Another poem was read, followed by a lullaby, "Raisins and Almonds." Even though the song has a definitive element of sadness, a wider range of emotional expressions would have been possible, even allowing some of the sense of humor I spoke of earlier to discreetly flirt about the perimeters like the black ribbon loomed with gold. "Tzena, Tzena", a folksong masterfully arranged by Portia Njoku, Vox Musica's resident composer, was lively and enjoyable, a highlight of the concert.
In the next section, The National Anthem of Israel, "Hatikva," was sung, followed by two songs which were also more like anthems, both odes to Jerusalem. These three pieces were not as interesting musically. "Hatikva," arranged by Heather Razo, ended on a dissonant chord, which provided a welcome touch. I am not one to speak out against Zionism, since my grandfather was one of the original conceivers of the idea at the turn of the 20th century, but I always advocate for music and art being separated from politics whatever the circumstance. Human suffering, on the other hand, will always be an element in musical expression, and this concert very powerfully embraced that in a tasteful way.
Tosha Tillotson from the Central Valley Holocaust Educator's Network introduced the final section before the intermission. A lecture/slideshow was presented by Darci Rose Pierce, whose father was a Holocaust survivor. She spoke of the heart-breaking hardships that her father and his family endured during the Nazi regime. The section concluded with the world premiere of a choral piece written by Heather Razo. "The Butterfly," rich in harmony and captivating melodic interest, makes a wonderful new addition to choral repertoire by one of our very own.
After the intermission, the choir tucked themselves closely around a string quartet to perform a work set to excerpts from Anne Frank's diary. Composed by Linda Tutas Haugen, the prose of Anne Frank was artfully interpreted into music which appropriately displayed a wide range of emotions. The cellist, Erik Urbina, drew my attention. You could see him leading into each phrase with his breath, something that adds immensely to conveying the feeling of the piece. I liked the effect of the closeness of the singers around the string instruments, both musically and visually, seeming to echo the sense of urgency and the need for comfort which the words conveyed. The music effectively built from the hushed austerity of an isolated child in hiding to the more complex attempts to understand a world of turmoil. The choir drove us through the terrain with excellent taste and powerful emotion.
We are fortunate to have in the Sacramento area vocal groups of such high caliber, and Vox Musica is one of the jewels in our midst which we can often enjoy and celebrate.
Griffin Toffler attended Longy School of Music and Morehead University as a music major for 3 years. Although she went on to be successful in her field after obtaining an MA in Clinical Psychology at John F. Kennedy University, she has often thought of returning to college to complete her degree in music education. She is currently taking conducting classes at CSU Stanislaus. Her first voice teacher, Olga Averino, was a major influence in Griffin's life. Griffin hopes to, in some small way, pass on to others some of the wisdom she learned from Madame Averino. Her website is www.griffintoffler.com.