Posted by: rlustig1952 | December 19, 2011

Zum Ende

After breakfast this morning I wandered over to the entrance of the Hotel (Crowne Plaza by the way; highly recommended) to say goodbye to my friends and fellow choristers who were getting on the bus to return to Boston. I’m staying on an extra day. Even though I knew they were leaving, it was a bit of shock to realize that our Berlin adventure had drawn so quickly to a close.

Yesterday was the last official day of the Festival. It began with a series of lectures by leading experts in Lewandowski, Jewish music in general, and other musically-related areas. My roomate M. (I will call him that in a nod to one of my favorite European Jewish authors, Franz Kafka) and I were planning to go, but we missed the bus. We got directions to the institute where the lectures were being held, but we didn’t know exactly where to go, so after several fruitless searches and conversations with befuddled guards, we gave up and headed for the Gemäldegalerie, which has one of the finest collections of 13th-18th century art in Europe. We didn’t have a lot of time, but we did see some spectacular art, including Rembrandt’s painting of Moses destroying the tablets, where the Hebrew was quite clearly portrayed on the stones.

Returning to the hotel, we changed and headed out to the Rykestrasse Synagogue for our final concert, a joint concert with the other choirs participating in the Festival. This was our first opportunity to hear the other ensembles, so I was quite looking forward to the event.

The Rykestrasse Synagogue is the largest in Germany, with a capacity of about 2000. You wouldn’t know that from the rather unprepossessing entrance that faces the street, but it is quite spectacular and very beautiful. Built in 1903/1904, it was vandalized during Kristallnacht but not completely destroyed, and services were conducted there until 1940 when the property was confiscated. As one of the few synagogues in the east still usable after the war, it became the center of Jewish life in East Berlin and has been restored over the years. The inside is quite magnificent.

After a series of rehearsals punctuated by breaks for us to run out for coffee and Gebäck, we assumed our places for the concert. I would guess around 1000 people were in the audience; maybe more. The format of the program was an opening number (Ma Tovu) by the combined choirs, followed by a short, 2-song performance by each choir, concluding with another number (Adon Olom) by the entire group of singers.

I’m not a big fan of massed choirs, and generally all you can do is either sing loud or sing soft and try not to wreck your voice, because you really can’t hear yourself. I don’t know how well we sounded, but we certainly sang loud (and to be fair, soft).

It was very enjoyable listening to the other choirs; there were some very wonderful performances and some spectacular solos. We were 4th and closed out the first set. IMHO, Josh did a great job in his selection of pieces: we were the only choir to sing one of Lewandowski’s German numbers, which was an important element of his body of work, and the focus of the pieces was on the choral elements as opposed to solos (although the German piece, Ewiger, an den Himmel reicht deine Huld (Psalm 36) did include a wonderful solo by Joel Kaplan).

The first piece we performed was Enosh (from Psalm 103), which I referenced in a previous post and provided a link. As I mentioned, it’s associated with mourning and is very evocative of the mix of sorrow and faith that many feel when affected by a personal tragedy. It starts with a long, meditative organ solo (performed by our extraordinarily talented accompaniest, Ed Swanborn). At this point in the piece we were asked to bow our heads as a bit of choreography. Now I tend to regard this kind of thing as gimmicky, but I go along and act the part. This time, though, something strange happened – I immediately felt chills running up and down my spine, and they wouldn’t stop. I’m not sure what it was – maybe I was getting sick (but I feel fine today), or maybe it just hit me what happened in this place. It was the same feeling I’d had the other day when I visited the deportation center. I think it affected us all, because I’m not sure we ever sang that piece any better than we did that afternoon. (One of the choristers from another choir commented that we sounded like one voice, which is a great compliment.) I think the response we got from audience confirmed that feeling. We also sang Psalm 36 with (I thought) great clarity and fidelity to the music (although someone else I spoke with later asked why we did a Yiddish piece – sigh). We got a fine round of applause as we took our bow and left the stage.

(Insider piece of information: we do practice our bows from time to time, and so that we are co-ordinated we quietly count to 5. It seems to have become a tradition to count in the language of the country we’re in, so yesterday it was eins-zwei-drei-vier-fünf).

After the intermission, we heard the rest of the choirs, with the last ensemble being the spectacular Synagoge Ensemble Berlin, who have the most amazing voices (my roomate M. commented that he wanted to sing bass like that when he grew up). We finished the concert with the group song, and then after a short reception made our way home, where we went our separate ways for dinner, drinks, or in my case watch the Pats thrash Denver with some of my chorus mates (I knew the Internet would come in handy someday.)

Time to stop writing and be a tourist.

Here are some photos of the choirs during their performance, starting with the Toronto Jewish Male Choir:


Jerusalem Cantors Choir


Synagogenchor Zurich


Johannesburg Jewish Male Choir


Les Polyphonie Hebraique de Strasboug


Zemel Choir of London


Synagogal Ensemble Berlin




  1. ” It seems to have become a tradition to count in the language of the country we’re in” …..

    Hmmm… I did not know that.

    Nice blog, great observations.


  2. What an incredible experience. This is something I know I will never forget.
    Steve (soloist from Toronto Jewish Male Choir)

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