Sunday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m., free | Levin Jewish Community Center, Durham
Sunday, Dec. 8, 4:30 p.m., free | Beth Meyer Synagogue, Raleigh
This Sunday, the Triangle Jewish Chorale is holding the first two fall concerts. The shows mark a milestone: the group’s “Twenty-Fifth-Anniversary Gayla.” The name pays homage to Gayla Halbrecht, who founded the group in 1994.
“The decorations and the refreshments are going to be fabulous,” TJC Board Secretary Judith Ruderman says before a rehearsal at Durham’s Levin Jewish Community Center. It sounds like something my aunt Sara Lee would say. As it turns out, Ruderman knows her.
“Are you one of the Jewish Cassells from Greensboro?” she asks, shaking my hand.
The TJC, which is made up of fifty-one singers, is a democratic organization. Many members hold titles. Singer Xavier Richert, for instance, has served as chorale librarian. Although he isn’t Jewish, Richert says that he has always had a “tender heart for the Jewish culture.”
TJC members are quick to celebrate the fact that at least a dozen of the group’s singers are not Jewish, including the chorale’s president, Marie Hammond, and her husband, Sam. This enthusiastic openness is what appealed to Richert. He loves music, but in joining the chorale, he was looking for connection, too.
“I wanted to join a club that would have me as a member,” he says, inverting the old Groucho Marx joke.
Richert, who is originally from France, has spent much of his time in Durham thinking about the meaning of community. When he first moved to the area, he threw himself into activities: a game group, a cinema club, a French conversation group. In TJC, he found his warm welcome. Recently, Richert won the Green Card lottery and, three weeks ago, became a U.S. citizen. The whole chorale celebrated at practice, singing “God Bless America” and cutting a cake with an American flag on it.
TJC also tries to keep other barriers to entry low; it offers a scholarship to encourage younger singers to join. (The current recipient is Jordan Taylor, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore.) The group, Ruderman says, is the “only group around [North Carolina] that sings Jewishly inspired music in a non-liturgical setting.” For that reason, if aspiring members can sing in key and show up to practice, TJC will almost certainly accept them.
“It’s important to keep this kind of music out there in the public, alive,” Ruderman says. “We may not be the best chorale around, but we are totally committed to our cause.”
The upcoming concerts will feature a retrospective of some of the TJC’s all-time favorite choral pieces. They also serve as a reminder of how far the chorale has come.
“We started with ten people,” says Gayla Halbrecht, the founder and honoree, sitting in the Levin JCC lobby. About thirty-five other members are already stretching and doing lip trills, but Halbrecht assures me she doesn’t mind skipping this part of rehearsal. “I don’t need to warm up,” she says. “I have been singing all day—I just do. I play golf, and I sing on the golf course. My friends say, ‘Oh, here comes our entertainment for the day.’”
Halbrecht’s relationship with music goes back to her mother, who played violin in the Vermont Symphony. The music enthralled Halbrecht, who would often accompany her mother to rehearsals. As an adult, Halbrecht joined a choir “as a hobby,” which then turned into performances at Carnegie Hall and a tour in Europe; she’s sung Handel’s Messiah so many times that she knows it by heart. (She’s also been a biochemist, a shop owner, and an interior decorator.)
The genesis of TJC lies with her mother, who asked her one day why she didn’t sing more from the Jewish canon. Halbrecht took the words to heart and, a few years later, founded the chorale.
Twenty-five years later, the group has exceeded anyone’s expectations. It has grown in membership and quality; it has a board of directors and hires professional conductors. It has commissioned local composers and performed as far away as Argentina, where its beloved current conductor, Lorena Guillén, is from. The program for the upcoming concerts consists of twelve former repertoire favorites. Three songs will be directed by the former conductors who originally led them.
Guillén will, of course, lead the rest. The music covers a wide range of styles. “From the vast array of Jewish music available—thousands of years of history— we have lots of choices,” chorale member Bernie Most says. The definition of “Jewish music” is wide open to interpretation, too: “If the composer’s father was Jewish, or if he had a neighbor who was Jewish, that counts.”
Among the selections are Yiddish show tunes and labor union songs; gentle Hebrew and Spanish hymns; a selection from Nabucco, Verdi’s opera about the plight of Jewish slaves under Nebuchadnezzar; the African-American spiritual “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and two different versions of “Hallelujah,” one of which is backed by a Middle Eastern drum.
The rehearsal I visit happens to end on just such a “Hallelujah.” Members filter out slowly, laughing with each other. While one singer is showing me her sheet music, we’re all interrupted by Richert.
“Excuse me!” he calls out. He’s holding an object over his head—a tin-foil-wrapped apple pie another member made for him. “I’m going home to eat my American pie! Thank you, everybody!”