Listen to a webcast interview with Joshua Jacobson, conducted by JHOM managing editor, Jennifer Turvey

The Boston Zamir Chorale was founded in 1969 by Joshua Jacobson with a group of college-age peers from the New Hampshire Zionist summer camp Yavneh. The idea for the Chorale came from the camp's choral director Stanley Sperber, himself the founder of a Jewish choral group in New York, also called Zamir. "A number of us had been singing in a choir during the summer there and enjoyed that experience and wanted to make it happen during the rest of the year," remembers Jacobson. The Chorale has grown to 50 members since then, with Jacobson continually at its helm during its 30 years of operation.

Zamir is committed to the highest quality performance of the Jewish choral repetoire, which spans thousands of years, four continents and a variety of styles. Zamir's programs reflect its commitment to both the musical and Jewish communities with projects ranging from free concerts for Boston school children and elderly groups to appearances at area synagogues and colleges to major performances of significant choral-orchestral repertoire in major concert halls.

Zamir Chorale

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Chorale is its the cultural legacy. The group is named after the first Jewish choral group Ha-Zomir, which was founded in Lodz, Poland in 1899 ('zomir' is the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word 'zamir,' which means 'nightingale'). Comparing the Boston Zamir Chorale to the Lodz Ha-Zomir chorus, Jacobson observes, "What's remarkable is how similar the missions of the two groups are without us necessarily consciously modeling ourselves after them. The Lodz Jews were trying to figure out how they could be culturally identifying Jews and yet be modern citizens of Poland. We also want to express ourselves as Jews, and yet feel ourselves to be 21st Century Americans. Zamir forms a bridge between these two cultures. We take the Jewish material and express it through the medium of music, which is more international."

The Chorale sings every conceivable kind of Jewish music, in arrangements by Joseph Rumshinsky, the conductor of the Lodz Ha-Zomir chorus; by the great 19th century Vienna and Berlin cantors; and many done by Jacobson himself. Its repertoire is mostly Jewish. One exception, which is arguably not an excerption, is Handel's "Israel in Egypt," which the Chorale will sing for the first time this June. Says Jacobson, "One must say it's a Jewish text, yet the composer was not Jewish, and most of his audience in 18th century England was generally not Jewish. So sometimes we have to stretch the definition to consider music like that Jewish music." During a recent tour in Eastern Europe last summer, non-Jewish songs from all the countries the Chorale visited were added. "In addition," says Jacobson, "during that tour, we realized we were representing not only Jewish culture, but that we were representing the United States of America, so we added a couple of American pieces to our repertoire."Large Zamir symbol

The Chorale occasionally sings a capella, but usually performs with accompaniment typically consisting of a pianist, a percussionist and a clarinetist. Occasionally it performs with a full symphony orchestra, or with a guest cantor or guest artists like the Klezmer Conservatory Band, or the Jewish rock group Safam (whose members came out of the Zamir Chorale).

Concerning the concert programs that he painstakingly puts together, and which often include explanatory narration, Jacobson explains, "Our concerts are more than just concerts. I like the term you see sometimes -- 'edutainment,' because that is what we do. Every concert is a voyage into Jewish music and Jewish culture. We take people back through history and around the world, using Jewish music as the vehicle."

Regarding his own musical arrangements, Jacobson explains "with some we try to aim for a historically correct performance, for example with a motet by Salamone Rossi, the 17th Century Jewish composer, we will try to perform it as closely as possible to the way it would have sounded in Rossi's choir. If I do an arrangement of an Israeli or Yiddish song, what I am trying to do is capture the spirit of that song and bring out its essence--that may be the excitement of it, the sadness of it, or the essential rhythms--in a way that is appropriate for choral singing." The Chorale has also done gospel and rock interpretations of traditional Jewish music, arrangements which Jacobson calls "pure entertainment" and cannily explains, "Look, when I construct a concert, I realize that most of the people who come don't come with lofty ideals, but to be entertained. Once I have their attention, once they trust me, then I can introduce some more sophisticated repertoire and take them other places. So a typical Zamir concert is going to be a real melange, including different levels of appeal."Zamir Chorale

Jacobson describes the original Lodz Ha-Zomir as a "Jewish Community chorus." According to Jacobson, the Boston Zamir Chorale is a Jewish community chorus in the same sense. That is, not only by having members from all sectors of the Jewish community (and even outside of it) but also, Jacobson explains, by musically representing the Jewish community (more about the Lodz Ha-Zomir). "Zamir's mission is to let not only Jews but also the outside world know what a rich musical heritage we have. I get calls very often from conductors of high school and community and even Church choirs looking for high quality Jewish music." An important part of Jacobson's work is transmitting the chorale's repertoire to teachers and conductors at workshops and choral conferences. In addition to its CDs and concert tapes, the Chorale also publishes sheet music, articles, and an extensive website. Using an example of a Jewish teenager in a high school choir who is embarrassed about his tradition because the only Jewish music his choir sings is "Dreydel, Dreydel, Dreydel," Jacobson explains that he hopes to be able to offer that teenager and his peers music that contains the heights of Jewish culture.

For more information about The Zamir Chorale of Boston and a list of their recordings, visit their web site: http://www.zamir.org

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