Jewish women's a cappella group delivers hybrid sounds of peace

March 13, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Vocolot is a women's a cappella ensemble specializing in Jewish music.

Directed by Linda Hirschhorn, a songwriter and Cantor at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, Calif., the ensemble draws from a variety of musical styles including liturgical, folk, jazz and a host of international influences ranging from the Arab world to South America.

The group's name, by the way, is a play on the English word "vocal" and the Hebrew word kolot, which means song.

"They're like a Jewish [version of] Sweet Honey in the Rock," said one fellow leaving Columbia's Oakland Mills High School on Sunday evening after a Vocolot concert sponsored by several Howard County synagogues and Jewish organizations.

I won't quibble with that description at all, as the ethnically charged singing from the quintet is both intimate and strong, matters of phrasing and harmonic blend are dispatched with endlessly sophisticated vocal technique and the voices move from idiom to idiom seamlessly and with tremendous flair.

It was Francois-Auguste-Rene Chateaubriand, the French statesman, who said, "Song is the daughter of prayer," and several of Sunday's selections were prayerful indeed.

"Lo Yisa Goy," the prophet Isaiah's vision of a world without war, sung in English and Hebrew, was a harmonic tour de force, with quotations from African-American spirituals perched ingeniously atop the familiar Israeli melody.

The prophet Zechariah's admonition that the kingdom of God will be ushered in "not by might, not by power, but by spirit" was movingly chanted in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Judaism's own lingual diversity was acknowledged in an evocatively modal "Pitchu Lee" (Open for Me the Gates of Righteousness) sung in Hebrew and Yiddish, the Germanic mother tongue of central and castern European Jewry.

We also were treated to a pair of secular songs in Ladino, the pastiche of Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic once spoken by Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.

The first, "La Comida," was a mother-daughter exchange on the nature of love and freedom, while the second, an achingly beautiful ode to a nightingale, bespoke the pain and heartbreak of innocents made to suffer murderous inquisitions, forced conversions and cruel expulsions.

Other ethnic ports of call included Brazil, as Latin rhythms were put at the service of Jewish prayer in "Raise the One." America's folk tradition came to the fore in the Appalachian hymn "Guide Me," which was a thing of beauty as its sad melody line soared over a succession of static drone harmonies.

Respects also were paid to the international feminist movement in the chant "Blessed Is the Flame," which paid homage to Jewish women in the old Soviet Union, and the jazzy, breezy "Women Gather Around."

"Through song, the gates of heaven can be opened," said the Chassidic Masters, the sages of mystical Judaism. As Vocolot performed, that promise seemed especially real.

Opening for the visitors Sunday were Howard County's Young Columbians, a troupe of talented youngsters trained by Toby Orenstein, proprietor of Toby's Dinner Theatre.

Though their tribute to American song was oddly conceived (an opening "Yankee Doodle" and then straight to the 1950s hit "Sixteen Candles?") - the kids were a delight.

Kudos to the Jack Pearlstone Institute for Living Judaism, the Jewish Federations of Baltimore and Howard County, Beth Shalom Congregation, Columbia Jewish Congregation, Bet Aviv, Congregation Ahavas Israel, Shalom Aleichem Congregation, Calah Congregation and Temple Isaiah for coming together to sponsor this musical "mitzvah" - this aesthetic good deed.

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