Local cantors, choirs join to celebrate Leonard Bernstein
The show is a tribute to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in commemoration of his 100th birthday and celebrate the power of music and the cantorate.
While it is true that most congregations no longer employ full-time cantors, there is nevertheless no shortage of cantors in Pittsburgh.
In fact, there currently are six invested cantors here who are members of the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly.
The six local CA members are: Congregation Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Seth Adelson; Cantor Moshe Taube, retired cantor of Beth Shalom; Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha; Cantor Henry Shapiro, spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center; Cantor Rob Menes, executive director of Beth Shalom; and Cantor Laura Berman of Temple Sinai.
Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the CA, and a former Pittsburgher, took notice.
“He called a meeting in Pittsburgh late last spring and suggested we have a series of concerts to celebrate the power of music and the cantorate,” said Berman.
The local CA members were on board.
“I have a nice working relationship with my colleagues,” said Berman, who is organizing the first show of what will be a three-concert series. “We all nodded and agreed to make this happen with input from the Cantors Assembly.”
The April 7 show is a tribute to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in commemoration of his 100th birthday, and will be held at Temple Sinai.
Three choirs will join together in song: Temple Sinai’s Intergenerational Choir; Rodef Shalom’s choir, Rodef Shira; and members of Pittsburgh’s Bach Choir. They will be conducted by the artistic director and conductor of the Bach Choir, Thomas Douglas.
Local members of the CA, as well as several visiting CA members and some “talented members of the community,” including 10-year-old Ben Nicholson, will perform Bernstein works through solos and ensembles. Violinist Lorien Benet Hart and cellist Michael Lipman — both members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as well as Temple Sinai — will provide accompaniment.
Flavio Chamis, a Pittsburgh-based conductor and member of Temple Sinai, who worked with Bernstein throughout the world from 1985 until his death in 1990, will share stories and photos of the legendary composer.
Chamis served as Bernstein’s assistant conductor, and also helped him “with writing and researching, and assisting the taping of his concerts and TV programs,” Chamis said, noting that Bernstein’s “Jewish identity shaped his whole life.”
“He was a permanent ‘rabbi,’ always trying to explain music, or any other subject that was present at that moment,” Chamis said. “He had a deep knowledge of all things Jewish and a substantial number of his compositions are based on Jewish themes. In fact, ‘West Side Story’ started as ‘East Side Story,’ in which the conflict would be between Italian Catholics and Jews around the time of Pesach and Easter.”
The photos and audio clips that Chamis will share are those he collected on different occasions working for Bernstein, “including him playing and singing in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as some photos of him as a private tourist in Rio, during the Carnival parade of 1985.”
Chamis said that Bernstein taught him not only about music, but about life.
“I think the main thing I noticed — not only in music, but also for life — is that no matter how many times he had conducted, recorded or played a piece, every time he came back to it, he would start looking at the work anew, with a fresh view of music that he had often known for a lifetime and conducted dozens of times,” Chamis said. “That provided a natural spontaneity and freshness to everything he did, and it can be noticed today by listening to the different versions of pieces he recorded multiple times.”
The Temple Sinai concert will include songs from “West Side Story,” “Candide,” “On the Town” and “Peter Pan,” as well as music that may be less familiar to some audiences.
“There will be music recognizable and that people are looking forward to, as well as music expanding people’s awareness of the scope of Bernstein’s music and Jewish influence,” Berman said.
The Temple Sinai show is just one of many worldwide events celebrating 100 years since Bernstein’s birth.
Berman is “thrilled,” she said, to be organizing the show that not only celebrates Bernstein, but demonstrates the collegiality of the cantorate here.
“It is great to be in a place where there is such a shared sensibility among my colleagues about the power of music,” she said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at