The New London Singers – 2013-2018
By Teresa Kosmin
New London Synagogue has enjoyed the services of a Chazan and choir since its formation in 1964. Out of sight in the choir loft with a conductor, the choir delighted the congregation on Shabbat and Festivals with the gems of the Ashkenazi tradition. This ceased on the retirement of Rabbi Louis Jacobs z.l, and Chazan George Rothschild.
Chazan Stephen Cotsen then took over, and choir activity was confined mostly to the High Holydays and special occasions. Attempts were made to form a regular choir again, but were not sustainable.
In 2013, after Stephen retired, a new Cantor joined NLS with a mandate to enable congregational participation. Cantor Jason Green arrived from the USA with an impressive record in forming choirs in all the congregations in which he had served. Arriving just prior to the High Holydays, his outstanding preparation and performance was described by the Rabbi as the “liturgical highlight” of the year. Soon after, the New London Singers choir was formed with seven members, later rising to seventeen.
The first public appearance of the choir was singing Ani Maamin after only three rehearsals to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The bima debut of the choir was Shabbat Shira 2014. The following week, New London held a Civic Service to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Synagogue and the induction of Cantor Jason, at which the nascent choir sang Esa Einai.
The choir was being introduced gently! The pace then quickened with the news that the NLSingers were to be THE choir for the High Holydays and would sing on Shabbat mornings. The very idea that the choir would be assisting in leading services was challenging, but exciting. Modern technology (mp3s) assisted the learning process, and by the time of the next bima appearance the choir was growing in confidence. The congregation were appreciative, and the congratulatory emails gratifying. Especially so were the emails from our Cantor/Choirmaster, full of praise and encouragement after every appearance.
Selichot, and especially the High Holydays music, were more complicated, involving extra rehearsals and arriving at the shul well before the start time to “warm up.” Well drilled in bima choreography, and modestly attired, the choir looked out towards the congregation. It was awe inspiring to say the least!
The response of the congregation was amazing and congratulatory. One congregant wrote that the choir had renewed fading spirits on Yom Kippur. As well as the traditional music, with arrangements by Stephen Glass and rearranged for the choir by Cantor Jason, our Composer in Residence, Julian Dawes, had written “Rachamana”, an exceptionally beautiful piece.
The following year NLS staged Julian`s Pesach Cantata, the Libretto by Rabbi Roderick Young in which the Passover story is told to a grandchild. The choir joined with professional singers, a Chamber ensemble and soloists including Cantor Jason as the Grandfather and his son Zev as the Grandchild. The Cantata was incredibly moving, both to watch and perform. Recounting the Passover story it included all the themes, the wanderings and persecution, and the grandchild’s questions, provoking a deep emotional response.
Outside NLS, the choir took part in the Belsize Square Synagogue Music Season “Against All Odds”, an uplifting concert to commemorate the resurgence of Jewish Music after the Holocaust. Three Cantors including Jason Green and the combined choirs of Belsize and NLS, together with instrumentalists, traced the musical heritage pre-, during and post- the Nazi era, culminating in music from Israel. The choir must have impressed, as Belsize choristers expressed their surprise at our volunteer, non-professional status!
St Albans Masorti hosted an EAJL learning Seminar “The Joy of Shul Music” described as a day-long singing-filled learning experience. The final session was a performance by a pop-up choir, made up of keen participants and the NLS choir. The NLSingers had a head start knowing the pieces, and, as the acoustics were amazing, the day finished with a rousing finale, in which everyone present joined enthusiastically.
The choir were constantly revising the Shabbat Torah and Musaf services. In addition, the next piece scheduled for the High Holydays was a new choral setting for Unetanah Tokef, the liturgical poem recited before the Musaf Kedusha. At this time in the service the synagogue is full, with everyone standing in front of an opened Aron Kodesh. Nerves required to be kept in check. A last minute addition to the repertoire on Rosh Hashanah morning were the refrains “B`sefer Chayim” and “B`rosh Hashanah”, further stimulation for the aforesaid nerves!
Shabbat Chanukah was the last occasion that the whole choir sang the Torah service and Musaf, including a rousing rendition of “Al Hanissim”.
The choir was formed to provide harmonic support for the Cantor in interpreting Jewish musical heritage to enable congregational participation. Unlike previous generations, when a more operatic style was in vogue, the new melodic harmonies by Stephen Glass, Meir Finklestein and others, encouraged the congregation to join in and experience the joy and spirituality in the music.
For over four years the choir had the privilege of being taught by an eternally patient and encouraging master of music who, while respecting the past, widened horizons. For the choir members there was joy and spirituality, fun and laughter. Good memories of Monday night practice, the tea breaks, the early warm up starts on the High Holydays and the annual choir party remain.
The NLSingers was the first international, multi-generational, volunteer, non-professional choir in New London’s history. For the choir and for the congregation, Heschel’s words could not be more true: “The wave of a song carries the soul to heights that utterable meanings can never reach”.