Nine talented teens from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community were among a group from across the United States and Israel that participated in the 21st annual Gala Concert of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir on March 30 at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
The concert was the culminating event of the HaZamir Choral Festival, a four-day program that brought together 300 teens for music and Jewish communal activities at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in the Catskills.
Pittsburgh’s HaZamir Chapter, which is sponsored by the Agency for Jewish Learning, was founded eight years ago and includes 11 members in grades eight to 12 who come from Pittsburgh, Fox Chapel, Monroeville and Mount Lebanon. The choir’s conductor is Nizan Leibovitch, a composer and conductor who is completing his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University.
Edward Frim, executive director of the AJL and the father of an eighth-grader who was part of the choir, was one of the weekend’s chaperones.
“The HaZamir Choral Festival was an extraordinary experience,” he said.
Over the course of the long weekend, he added, teens auditioned for solos, took part in pluralistic Shabbat and Havdallah services and bonded over music and Judaism. On Sunday morning, 400 HaZamir vocalists were bused to New York City, where they performed an afternoon concert for an audience of 2,500.
At the concert, said Frim, conducting duties were shared among the conductors of each chapter and the national musical director and HaZamir founder, Matti Lazar. Nizan Leibovitch conducted a choral setting of “Yah Ribon.”
Pittsburgh high school senior Madeline Lemberg, a member of the HaZamir Chamber Choir, was one of the featured soloists. Lemberg is also co-chair of HaZamir’s national teen leadership group, which organized activities and promoted HaZamir to their peers.
At the Carnegie Hall concert, said Frim, a group of HaZamir alumni also performed, including Pittsburgh native Penina Francus, also a former chair of the national HaZamir teen leadership group.
“HaZamir is a unique setting,” said Frim, adding that the teens involved with the organization are also unique. “I did not meet one who was not open, accepting and inclusive. There was far less drama and competition than usually seen in such large groups. And while the music brought them all together, the bonds that formed between teens who were just meeting were very strong.”
Frim noted that his daughter plans to keep in touch with teens from other cities.
“There was a great deal of pride among the teens about the level of music that was produced and a huge amount of respect for the conductors who taught them,” he said. “They reveled in being challenged and producing high-level content. Overall, this experience was one of the most powerful I have witnessed in cementing connections with other teens, establishing Jewish identity and instilling content.”
Frim said the State of Israel also played a starring role in the proceedings.
“An emotional highpoint was on Saturday night, at the close of the dress rehearsal, when Matti Lazar noted the Israeli teens’ participation and honored those who were about to enter the Israel Defense Forces.”
At the close of the rehearsal, choir members sang a choral setting of the prayer for the state of Israel, “Avinu SheBaShamayim.”
“Tears were flowing from Israeli and American teens, chaperones and conductors,” recalled Frim. “An important lesson for me is that we need to offer our teens true, high-level opportunities to create. And that creativity has to include the type of serious content I saw at HaZamir, and the highest standards. Seeing these teens present a professional-level concert at Carnegie Hall was an unbelievable experience.”
(Simone Ellin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)