The Maryland Jewish Choral Society debuts

Dimmock leads `Elijah,' with cantor Perlman

Stage: theater, music, dance

December 18, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For the past 2 1/2 decades, no one has kept his finger on Baltimore's musical pulse with greater acuity than choral conductor T. Herbert Dimmock.

The 51-year-old Peabody-trained conductor has guided the city's Handel Choir, Johns Hopkins Choral Society and choir of the Cathedral of the Incarnation and currently directs the singers of First English Lutheran Church, Chizuk Amuno Synagogue and the Harford Choral Society. But something he sensed back in the 1980s began to puzzle him.

"It seemed like just about everything being performed here chorally was aimed at a Christian audience and was being sung at maybe a dozen or so churches up and down Charles Street," Dimmock recalls. "That really began to bother me."

The result of that discomfort has been nearly two decades of Dimmock-led choirs concertizing in African-American churches on the city's west side, in the synagogues of Pikesville and at venues in between, a sustained musical outreach that has won the conductor commendations for community service from both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

It was the initial response from the Jewish community, though, that Dimmock remembers most vividly.

"When I proposed bringing music into the synagogues," Dimmock says with a chuckle, "what I heard at first was, `Hey, we're a synagogue. What do you want with us?' I mean, here you had one of the country's largest Jewish communities; a sophisticated, culturally connected audience that had never had the chance to support a choral group whose raison d'etre was to sing their story. I thought to myself, this is a real void."

At long last, that void has been filled: Sunday evening at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, the Maryland Jewish Choral Society, a newly created choir of 70 singers under Dimmock's baton, will be joined by soloists and a full orchestra for the ensemble's inaugural concert. The evening's work will be Felix Mendelssohn's grand oratorio, Elijah.

"Herb and I have dreamed about this for years and decided that now was the time for Baltimore to enter this musical arena," says cantor Emanuel Perlman of Chizuk Amuno, co-leader of the effort to get the new choir up and singing. "What's especially wonderful is that we're starting off with what I think is the greatest oratorio ever composed."

The music lovers of Birmingham, England, who heard the premiere of Elijah on Aug. 26, 1846, thought so too. The final note was "drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and defining," read the newspaper the next day. "Never was there a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art."

Miracles, confrontations with the pagan priests of Baal, resurrections from the dead, and an ascent to heaven make Mendelssohn's musical account of the life of the great Hebrew prophet one of the masterworks of the genre; a hit then and now. Elijah's beloved choruses, such as "Lift thine eyes," "He, watching over Israel" and "Thanks be to God" (which caps off Part I with great joy and verve), should provide the new group with plenty of chances to shine.

"There's something special about the works written by great composers just before they die," Emanuel Perlman says, thinking of Mendelssohn, who died in 1847, just a year after Elijah's tumultuous English premiere.

Now in his seventh year at Chizuk Amuno, the cantor is looking forward to singing the florid tenor solos in Sunday's performance. He'll be joined by Edward Crafts of the Metropolitan Opera, singing the title role, and by New York sopranos Coral Odom and Sally Wilson.

Most eyes and ears, though, will be on the choir's debut. "We're devoted to music of the Jewish experience but are open to anyone of any religion or choral background," says Dimmock, who already is surveying the likes of Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony and Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service for future programs. "We already have a Catholic nun and a Lutheran pastor."

Some of his singers are novices, while others, such as bass-baritone Jon West of Easton, are old choral hands. West, who drives 140 miles round trip from the Eastern Shore each Monday to practice, is clearly moved by what his new choir offers him. "The group grows in understanding with each rehearsal," he says. "Every time I hear or sing Elijah, I am brought to a new understanding of Elijah's trials and triumphs as both a prophet and a righteous man thrust into a tumultuous time."

The Maryland Jewish Choral Society performs Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah" at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road, Pikesville, Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets, which are $36 and $18, may be reserved by calling 410-486-6400.

For more classical music, theater and dance events, see Page 43.

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