Early in the proceedings at the Fifth Annual Winter Jewish Music Concert, I circled a couple of names who I wanted to highlight in this review, as a way of filtering out some of the performers. But as the night went on, I realized that strategy wasn’t going to work. Alan Mason, the organizer of the concert, had managed to pack the two-hour show with 20 artists, almost all of them vocalists, and at least half were outstanding, with the remainder still good.
Mason’s goal is to attract an audience simply by presenting Jewish music “performed at the highest level,” and the packed sanctuary at Temple Israel of Greater Miami — which seats about 700 — testified that his strategy works.
The program included some eclectic touches, such as a magic show with belly dance, beat-boxed chants, and acoustic guitar folk songs, but by far the bulk of the artists were pure vocalists. Most of them are cantors at South Florida synagogues.
Mason explained that he lets the performers sing whatever they want, and the result serves as a sort of talent showcase of excellent singing.
The songs embraced a wide range of styles. Most were sung in Hebrew. There were contemporary settings of prayers such “B’rosh Hashana,” “Yismechu,” and “V’Shamru,” and a jazz-inflected “V’ahavta.” There was an art song from the Yiddish cabaret tradition by composer Moshe Milner. There was a Hebrew rendition of the “On My Own,” an aria from Les Miserables (“Levadi”). There was Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. There was Bagels ‘n Box, a witty mash-up of hip-hop beats with cantorial chants. Accompaniment on most songs was ably provided by Alan Mason on piano and Brian Potts on subtle percussion. The audience often joined in on the chorus, and under the sand-colored arches and carved-wood chandeliers of the sanctuary, the whole event offered an inviting, celebratory air.
For this reviewer, having spent very little time in synagogues and with zero understanding of Hebrew or Yiddish, a special pleasure was simply dissecting the different vocal styles. The range was considerable. The rough-edged vigor of baritone Erik Contzius was followed immediately by the clear, understated soprano of Shira Silverman Nafshi. The clean cantillation of Aviva Bass preceded the robust vibrato of Michelle Auslander Cohen. I had my own favorites, but the largest ovation (until the closing number) went to tenor David Aaron Katz’s impassioned performance of “V’lirusholayim Ircho,” by New York composer Abraham Ellstein.
A two-hour parade of talent runs the risk of getting exhausting, but with such high quality and well-organized staging, it never felt that way. Alejandra Czarny’s moving performance of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” that closed the concert brought all the onstage talent together to sing the chorus, and as the crowd rose to their feet and joined in the singing, I couldn’t help but think that a follow up concert was in order with a bit more collaboration between the singers: a few vocal trios or small choirs, or even a small orchestra for accompaniment. I suspect that the logistics of organizing a concert like this are already complicated enough, but it’s a good sign when you leave a concert with this many performers thinking of ways to expand it.