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Going for Gold With 'Golem'

May 4, 2006 By:
Cantor David F. Tilman, JE Feature
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Alan Harler
One of the most important concerts of this season featuring music of Jewish content will be presented by the 130-voice Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia at its annual spring concert on Sunday evening, May 7, at Irvine Auditorium of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Mendelssohn Club and its superb music director, Alan Harler, have brought together internationally known bass-baritone Sanford Sylvan, local composer Andrea Clearfield and 60 members of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia to perform the world premiere of Clearfield's "The Golem Psalms," and the "Sacred Service/Avodath Hakodesh," written by Ernest Bloch, featuring Sylvan in the cantorial role.

Now completing his 18th year as music director of the 138-year-old chorus, Harler has always demonstrated great programming flare, and has commissioned and premiered many new works for chorus and orchestra. He has also shown great interest in performing Jewish choral music with both the Mendelssohn Club and with his singers at Temple University, where he has served as director of choral activities and professor of music for 25 years.

Over the years, his choirs have sung at area temples, and his singers combined with three synagogue choirs at the "Israel 50" celebration in 1998, held at the Wachovia Center.

Introduced to the Bloch "Sacred Service" by Aron Marko Rothmuller - his neighbor in Bloomington, Ind. - an internationally-known baritone who recorded the Bloch work conducted by the composer, Harler is leading the 55-minute work for the very first time. Commissioned in 1934 by Temple Emanuel in San Francisco, the piece is a significant milepost in the history of Jewish composition.

Although rarely presented in its entirety because of its length and the need for a large orchestra, the work is a masterpiece both of Jewish musical literature, and of choral/orchestral 20th-century serious repertoire.

"The Bloch work is very expressive, like Romantic compositions," said Harler, who, three years ago, heard Sylvan sing the cantorial solo in a performance in North Carolina. He knew then that he had found the ideal soloist to work with the Mendelssohn Club.

When searching for a piece to present along with the Bloch, Harler recalled learning about the Golem stories during a visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. According to the traditional legend, the Golem was made from clay taken from the banks of the Vlitava River in Prague by Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th-century maharal of the Jewish community, in order to defend the Jews in the ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.

Harler brought the Golem story to composer Andrea Clearfield, whose composition of "The Long Bright" had made a profound impression.

Clearfield was intrigued by the idea of setting the Golem story to music, and thus eagerly embraced Harler's requests to write music evocative of "mysterious beginnings." The maestro also asked for a lot of percussion in the new work, and Clearfield gladly acceded to both demands.

"There are 24 percussion instruments played by four players," said Harler.

Clearfield asked Ellen Frankel, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, to write the libretto for the Golem work, based on their earlier collaboration on Clearfield's "Eshet Hayil/'A Woman of Valor.' "

Frankel wrote a text of seven tableaux describing the creation of the Golem, his running "Amok" and his ultimate "Uncreation."

Harler said that Clearfield's music "speaks directly to the audience." She has written wonderful tunes utilizing jazzy rhythms, mixed meters and some explorations into dissonance.

Because there is so much to learn from this new work, Clearfield will present a one-hour pre-concert lecture together with the Mendelssohn Club at 4:30 p.m. in Irvine Auditorium. The lecture is free to ticket-holders for the 7:30 p.m. concert.

For ticket information, call the Mendelssohn Club office at: 215-893-1999, or log on to: www.mcchorus.org.


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