People swayed in their seats at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. Some tapped their feet; others sat mesmerized by the music that touched their Jewish souls.
No, this wasn’t a Shabbat service; it was a concert.
The near-capacity crowd came Thursday, July 19, to listen to “Music of the Spirit,” a free concert at the synagogue social hall put on in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Paul Silver, a violist, who also played keyboard during the concert, and Ron Samuels, a clarinetist, both from the PSO, performed instrumentals based on Jewish stories.
“Music of the Spirit” began in 2004 when the PSO became the first American orchestra to play in the Vatican for a pope. The concert celebrated the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s papacy and his commitment to interfaith understanding.
From that beginning, a partnership developed between the PSO and religious communities in Pittsburgh, where they continue to hold concerts to celebrate the spiritual and universal message of music.
“I think if you talk even in a universal sense, music is a language that everybody can understand at some level without any real schooling or knowledge,” Silver said. “There’s an innate understanding it can communicate at the most simple and deepest levels of consciousness and even subconsciousness so that the music always seems to speak to the spirit.”
The duo played selections based on “Eli, The Fanatic,” by Philip Roth, from the book, “The World of the Short Story: A 20th Century Collection”; and “The Little Shoemakers,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Singer’s book “Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories.”
“The stories were chosen by a number of people,” Silver said. “The symphony actually picked them, but we thought that they were wonderful, evocative stories of Jewish life and Jewish spirit and two seemingly contrasting works that have so many similar themes.”
Although all of the songs were based on stories, only one song had words while all of the others were pure instrumentals. This gave the audience a chance to feel the music and find meaning on their own instead of listening to words.
“It’s the kind of thing where you can’t describe why, but when you hear it you know that [the music works with the stories],” Samuels said. “I think that’s symbolic of the stories themselves that are constantly pitting old world versus new, and somehow the music evokes that.”
Between selections, Helen Faye Rosenblum, who moderated the concert, gave explanations to the story behind each piece.
“Each of these stories deals in a way with something else that the music is going to tell us,” Rosenblum said. “Each of these stories deals, in a way, with a Jewish soul educating a family, finding a marriage, finding peace, finding war, finding hecticness, finding tumult and tension and eventually finding his way back to the culture that courses through his blood and his veins and his bones.”
Rosenblum compared these stories to family tales the audience’s parents and grandparents may have once told them.
“One of the wonderful things about these short stories and about so many short stories about the immigrant experience is that each one tells a different story,” she said. “Each of these stories does stimulate the thought of the stories that we know in different ways.”
One story told by Silver recounted his great-grandfather who was a soldier in the Russian army during World War I.
“He was a real talker, and he had his mouth open when a snipers’ bullet went right in his mouth and through his cheek, so all he had was a little hole,” Silver said. “He was lucky he avoided the infection that probably would have killed most people. So for the longest time we would joke about how lucky we were that he was a talker.”
The end of Silver’s story sent a wave of laughter through the crowd, but he soon went back to stirring emotions with his instruments.
“It can intensify euphoria, it can intensify despair, it can give you strength when you’re weak and if you want to be depressed there’s great music for that,” Silver said about the music. “There’s a universal element to communicating with sound and when you do that, if it feels good to you then it probably feels good to somebody else.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)