As Columbia's Pro Cantare Chamber Chorus progressed through the first half of its "Music of Jewish Tradition" program at Columbia's Jim Rouse Theatre on Saturday evening, I found myself getting more and more nervous.
Part One had begun beautifully with a handsomely done Sephardic chant, followed by a haunting ode to Jewish martyrdom in Spain sung with great feeling by Cyndie Eberhardt.
But as the singers began a pair of motets by Salamone Rossi, a Jewish composer of the Italian Renaissance who crafted many sumptuous works in the style of his better-known Christian counterparts, things started to unravel.
In Rossi and in Franz Schubert's setting of the 92nd Psalm sung in Hebrew, attacks were tentative, pitches were insecure and the chamber choir sounded at arm's length from the emotional heart of the music.
By the time they got to a medley of Israeli folksongs arranged by Boston choral conductor Joshua Jacobson, the wheels had come off the wagon. Music that should zing with abandon sounded insecure and, on occasion, just plain wrong, as when the basses fumbled and bumbled their way into "Hey Harmonika," the fourth section of the suite.
All this occurred on what was essentially the "easy" portion of the program, which explains the case of nerves I alluded to earlier. For if the less-demanding fare sounded scrappy and under-rehearsed, what was going to happen when Pro Cantare's full ensemble began tackling the blockbuster of the evening: "Avodath Hakodesh," the formidable "Sacred Service" of Ernest Bloch?
Thankfully, I can report that the level of artistry rose considerably in the second half of Saturday's program as conductor Frances Motyca Dawson's troops rose to the occasion and presented Bloch's lengthiest and best known choral work in an admirably accomplished manner.
A liturgical melange of Hebrew and English texts drawn from the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Proverbs, the prophets and postbiblical writings, this expansive composition for a solo baritone cantor, mixed choir and full orchestra is a tough piece to bring off.
Highly episodic in structure, "Avodath Hakodesh" is a work of considerable intensity. But its expressive depth comes not so much from Bloch's melodies as from an elusive atmospheric interplay between cantorial declamations, assertive choral responses and the deep, dark sonorities of the orchestration.
Despite occasional bits of insecurity (a sloppy patch at "Tzur Yisroel," some wimpy responses at "Borechu" and "Shema Yisroel"), the singers sounded well prepared and admirably at one with the music. They provided many edifying lifts into the transitional cadences that dot the score, and radiant interludes such as the "Peace Song" that returns the sacred Torah scroll to the ark, were beautiful indeed.
Baritone Charles Robert Stephens was a marvelous cantor - deep, virile and admirably attuned to the spiritual content of what he was singing about.
The work is an absolute bear to keep together, yet Motyca Dawson kept things flowing smoothly with a minimum of fuss. All bumps proved minor, and the superb orchestra followed her faithfully.
I was surprised that the extensive booklet did not include Hebrew portions of the "Sacred Service" in translation, an oversight that didn't help the accessibility level of the piece one bit. If space was the problem, I'm sure most audience members would gladly have traded some of the encyclopedic notes for an English guide to Jewish liturgy.