Paying homage to a musical master
Chicago a cappella
Genius in the Synagogue: A Musical Portrait of Max Janowski
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20
Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Tickets are $35 and $28; $22 for seniors; $12 for students
(773) 281-7820 or www.chicagoacappella.org
Updated: October 17, 2012 3:18PM
Chicago a cappella will explore a legacy of Jewish music from Chicago’s South Side that began in 1938 and continued until 1991.
It is the music of Max Janowski, composer and conductor, who served for 53 years as music director at K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park, the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago. (K.A.M. stands for the congregation’s oldest core, established in 1847 as Kehilath Anshe Ma’arav. It translates as “Congregation of the Men of the West.”)
Chicago a cappella’s program coincides with the100th anniversary of the birth of Janowski, who was born in Berlin and emigrated to the United States in 1937.
“Max wrote music for everything,” said Jonathan Miller, artistic director of Chicago a cappella. “He had the whole year covered — like Bach.”
As a lad, Miller sang in Janowski’s choir. “I didn’t know there were any other Jewish composers,” he declared, and he wasn’t kidding.
“Max self-published more than 150 works under his own imprint, Friends of Jewish Music,” he explained. “There are probably at least a hundred more in manuscript. We use several of the manuscript ones at Congregation Rodfei Zedek for high holidays. It’s beautiful stuff. “
He spoke of a distinct characteristic of Janowski’s work, no matter what the subject. “He let every word dictate the music, to achieve the deepest possible musical experience of the text,” Miller said, with obvious admiration.
As Janowski’s reputation grew, he was able to attract the best singers as soloists, Miller added, including Sherrill Milnes, soon to become an operatic superstar, and the exotic mezzo-soprano Isola Jones, who also went on to an international career.
The program for Chicago a cappella’s upcoming concert includes 18 numbers. It opens with Hariu, Miller’s arrangement for a cappella voices of Janowski’s setting of Psalm 100, that begins “Shout unto the Lord, all the earth…” Soloist is tenor Trevor Mitchell.
Two other psalms set by Janowski and arranged by Miller on the program are Adonai Roi, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” with baritone Joe Labozetta as soloist, and Esa Eynai Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?…” with soloist Klaus Georg, tenor.
Miller has approached this music with respect and perhaps even a little anxiety. “Max was really a taskmaster,” he recalled. “I was glad I was never a soloist for him. But listening to him instruct the singers was like attending a master class. Unless the soloist’s voice gave you good bumps, it wasn’t good enough for him.”
Judy Gilbert of Highland Park concurs. “I grew up in Hyde Park and my whole family, five of us, sang in the K.A.M. choir,” she said. “Max was a real character. He was tough. I was afraid of him.
“But I have outstanding memories,” she continued. “Max played at my wedding. In rehearsals he gave us so much musical history. He talked about Bach and Chopin.
“Plus my father was an interim synagogue cantor and Max was his mentor.”
Gilbert continues choral singing, now with the Kol Zimrah choir under the direction of Richard Boldrey. She speaks fondly of the bond between past members of the K.A.M. choir. “It will always be something special for us,” she said, adding “There are a million Max stories out there. We love to hear them and tell them.”