Review: 'O HOW GOOD' Choral Concert at Central Synagogue

MasterVoices concert honors Lois Conway

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It's truly amazing that one can walk by a place and be unaware of it, no matter how important it may be. Or what it looks like inside. I, for one, am not one of those people. I have been curious about New York City's Central Synagogue (in Midtown East) for a long time. And just recently I had the chance to go in and experience not a traditional service but something that surely was a transcendent spiritual moment in a transcendent, historic space.

MasterVoices is directed by the Tony and Drama Desk Award winning conductor Ted Sperling. Maestro Sperling has a sure hand and ear for any music he has in front of him, but he was particularly skillful with the intricacies of this program. It's one thing to have a choir sing in Italian, where every syllable is sung and easy to pronounce. It's quite another to sing in Hebrew, which can have tongue-twisting words and phrases, let alone harmonies and melodies that don't always cadence in the manner of Western European liturgies. Maestro Sperling taught the choir so well that their Hebrew diction was completely understandable, even if the language was not. They sang with nuance and great expression.

The first piece on the program was a rarely heard work by German Jewish composer Kurt Weill. Composed in 1946, this jazz-inflected blessing over wine is not the traditional melody many families sing and is interesting as both a stand-alone concert solo (with choir) and as a liturgical piece. The Cantor of Central Synagogue, tenor Daniel Mutlu, sang the solo with power and beauty.

The second work on the program "And the Sun Goes Up" was written by Jerusalem born Daniel Rein, who accompanied on piano. This performance was its World Premiere.The piece is heavily rhythmic, making some want to dance in the aisles. Soloists Erin Brittain soprano, and Suzanne Schwing mezzo sang the text (from Ecclesiastes) with clean diction and lyrical melody. The choir painted beautiful tone colors, leaving chords and final endings shimmering in the air. For the most part, the chorus maintained good diction. The song was well-received by the nearly full house. It's a terrific piece and I hope it gains traction in the choral world.

The centerpiece of the program was Ernest Bloch's 1933 Sacred Service/Avodath Hokodesh. The concert's title, "O How Good" referred to the choral opening, "Mah Tovu" ("How is for brothers and sisters to dwell the extension of the phrase). Bloch based the entire work on the Reform movement's Saturday morning service with words and phrases from the Union Prayerbook. In keeping with Classic Reform's custom of the time, a baritone voice sang most of the solo work, sung here by the sumptuous voice of Justin Austin. The two sopranos from the earlier piece were featured here as well and sang just as beautifully. The Speaker, Carey Blaine White, spoke clearly and was well-paced with the underscoring.

The most often excerpted section of the Sacred Service is the Silent Devotion and Response. The first part is strictly instrumental. The voices come in and sing their entire part ("Yiyuh Lerazon") a capella (without instrumental accompaniment). The organ comes back in at the "Amen". In the many choirs I have heard performing this piece, choirs often go completely flat at this juncture. Not so MasterVoices. They maintained their pitch with pinpoint accuracy. This alone takes much hard work by the chorus and director. It was sensational.

Organist David Strickland, in his first performance with MasterVoices, proved he had accurate, fleet fingers and that he knew when to pull all the stops out (and when not to do the same!). Bravo to you, Mr.Strickland.

The choral blend and balance were just about the best one could hope for. Although the sanctuary in which the group performed had an extremely high, vaulted ceiling, there was no mushiness of sound. If anything, the mostly wooden structures of this stunning room helped keep the sound from going and going and going. That and Maestro Sperling's fine ear for exactly how long each note should be. There was no problem with too much or too little reverb.

MasterVoices knocked it out of the park with all of the music, in particular the Sacred Service. The concert was dedicated to a woman who had been on their Board but recently passed away. She was a devoted member of the group and loved choral music. Mrs. Lois Conway would have been ecstatically proud of the group, all the instrumentalists, Mr. Strickland, and Maestro Sperling.

MasterVoice's final concert of the season will be Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe"(or the Peer and the Peri). It will take place at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 at 7:00pm. With a chorus such as this one and some stellar Broadway actors (Christine Ebersole, Santino Fontana, Jason Daniely plus others, it's going to be a truly don't-miss concert!

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