Friday, September 10, 2010

The Music Mr. Hoffman Ignored

This is the text of a letter I sent to the Editors of the NY Times in response to an OpEd piece by Miles Hoffman that appeared in the 9/8/10 edition, entitled “The Music You Won’t Hear on Rosh Hashanah” which can be found at:


Re: "The Music You Won't Hear on Rosh Hashanah" by Miles Hoffman, 9/8/10 OpEd


I'm not sure where Mr. Hoffman attends synagogue, but his familiarity with and knowledge of the spectrum of Jewish Music seems limited at best, snobbish, at worst.

Near the end of the piece, Mr. Hoffman mentions that "many synagogues have fine choirs..." Exactly what music does he think these fine choirs are singing? Well, I can tell you that it is an entire class of music that Mr. Hoffman has callously and carelessly omitted from his survey. Perhaps it doesn't fit his definition of classical, or of serious composers. It is a grievous error.

As a start. perhaps Mr. Hoffman needs to pay a visit to, the Milliken Archive of Jewish Music.  And even that august collection has many omissions.

Let's begin with the music of those who wrote for the early liberal Jewish synagogues. Great composers like Louis Lewandowski, Solomon Sulzer, Hugo Adler, Samuel Adler, Israel Alter, Abraham Binder, Paul Ben-Haim, Juliuis Chajes, Hebert Fromm, Max Helfman, Max Janowski, Gershon Kingsley, Frederik Piket, Heinrich Schalit. More contemporary composers like Ben Steinberg, Stephen Richards, Charles Davidson, Michael Isaacson, Meir Finkelstein, Bonia Shur, Benjie-Ellen Schiller, Rachelle Shubert, And so many more-no slight intended against any composers I failed to mention in this brief list of serious composers of synagogue music. At many Reform and other liberal synagogues, you'll certainly hear the music of these composers, which most listeners and congregants would view as classical in style, during the High Holy Days.

There's a whole new crop rising as well. Look to the likes of the Shalshelet Festival ( or the Young Composers Award competition of the Guild of Temple Musicians (

Finally, Mr. Hoffman (and the Milliken Archive) overlook the vast field of contemporary folk/pop/rock-influenced liturgical (and secular) music, much of it written with the same skill and passion as any classical piece ever was, and which is the music you'll hear in most of today's liberal Jewish synagogues.

I hope Mr. Hoffman will avail himself of the opportunity to expand his Jewish musical horizons so that in his next OpEd piece, he can give a more complete and accurate picture of synagogue music in the 21st Century.

Adrian A. Durlester
Amherst, MA

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Summer Rant, or When is “Folk Process” Just An Excuse?

This post has been withdrawn by the author, and will be rewritten and reposted at a later date

Saturday, May 22, 2010

UPDATED Review: Sababa – “It’s All Good”

“It’s All Good” by Sababa

Note: This review is updated from the initial version posted on 5/21/2010.

The title of Sababa’s new CD, “It’s all good” says it all. Wrapped up in a neat little musical package are a baker’s dozen of new, original song and settings. what’s clear and evident in every cut on the CD is how much fun and enjoyment that the groups members-Steve Brodsky, Robbi Sherwin, and Scott Leader-must have had putting this CD together. Their enthusiasm for the songs and each other shines through. This is a collection of songs to which you’ll enjoy listening over and over.

The album’s title song, “It’s All Good” is a fun romp. At first listen, I half expected to hear another song by Steve’s former band, ", Ma Tovu, but the song quickly blossomed into a new sound representative of the unique sound that is Sababa.  One quibble, in that I wasn’t quite sure where the steel drum sound fit in to the mix. Nevertheless, it’s a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, sing along kind of song.

“Beauty of the World” hearkens to my cry to set less frequently heard pieces of text to music, in this case, the blessing upon seeing a thing of rare beauty. It’s a great setting of the text, and quite singable.

In “I Saw God” all three members contribute their understandings. It’s a wordy song, reminiscent of the old Tom Lehrer “Folk Song Army” line “and it don’t matter if you have to squeeze a couple of extra syllables into a line.” All three do their best to wrap their diction around the fast-paced words, while maintaining a sense of melody - Steve and Robbi just a bit more successfully than Scott, in this case. Don’t get me wrong-Scott has a great voice, it just didn’t seem to express the same ease of diction with the fast-paced lyrics. Both “Beauty of the World” and “I Saw God” perhaps go on a bit longer than needed, but that’s a judgment call and a matter of personal taste.

This new “Adonai S’fatai” is a bit too “rock ballad” stylistically for me, so it’s more a listening experience. That said, I suspect it could be worked quite well into a live musical service in the right setting. (And I have now witnessed that being done – see my review of Sababa’s service at Sinai Temple.)

Robbi’s new setting of “Ani T’filati” is best summed up by the wry comment in the liner notes (which actually appear on the website, and not on the liner:)

A Zen Master once went to a hot dog vendor and said, “make me one with everything…”

It’s a song with potentially deep meaning, but this setting is more fun than philosophical. Not a criticism, just an observation – as I like the song.

“For Healing” is an absolutely gorgeous song with only one fault – an  intro and repetitive refrain on yai-lai-lai, which doesn’t really contribute anything to the song except to make the listener eager to get back to some actual words. This song, too, suffers from a few awkward syllabic/lyric moments. None of these petty concerns, however, are enough to take away from the overall beauty of  the song and the lyrics. Robbi demonstrates her sensitivity to the diversity within Judaism through the inclusion of a verse in Spanish – reminding us that, at least where she comes from (Texas) it’s not unusual to find yourself among lot of Jews speaking Spanish.

Now, we don’t need another “Mi Chamocha” but as long as we’re going to get one, why not this new setting by Brodsky? Its pseudo-middle-Eastern melody and rhythm give it an easy-to-sing, somewhat hypnotic feeling.  I only wish Steve had “sold it.” The performance seems a bit rote, and doesn’t match the celebratory spirits of the Hebrew text. I can imagine a more spirited performance of this new song, and hope to hear one some day!

We also don’t need yet another “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem.” Scott sums his new setting this way:

The words are classic and familiar. The melody is simple and repetitive, to have everyone singing along in no time. Sometimes less is more. ‘Nuf said.

In terms of my comments on this song, well…’nuf said already by Scott.

You’ll enjoy their new setting of “Barcheinu.” I liked it a lot, though I was disappointed in the choice of relying on a more “Brecker brothers” sax sound, and a musical style that leans more on Jimmy Buffet (and maybe even Springsteen.) For me, somehow the song seems better suited for a more classic 50s rock and roll sound.

“Darkest Time of Night” is Robbi’s stunning and plaintive tribute to the late Steve Meltzer. She asks “Do we ever take the time to let someone know how much they mean to us, before it's too late?” Too true, Robbi. I hope this song finds its way into the pantheon of songs used at times of memory and loss. This track has some of the finest and most tasteful accompaniment of the whole project.

Another “Hinei Mah Tov” you say? Yes! In this case, I can forgive, since it’s a cover of a fun setting by Hal Aqua of Los Lantzmun, set to a bouncy reggae-ish beat.

Robbi’s “Hu Ya’aseh” is not new, and even though Robbi sings it, you can almost think of it as a cover of her own song. Robbi decided top have a little fun with the song that she and Rich Glauber wrote some years back by adding a couple of local gospel singers to the mix. It still retains some of its reggae/rock feel, too. In fact, it’s a bit of a style mash-up. The background rhythm is, at times, almost Nashville country-rock, sometimes a little gospel, sometimes reggae-rock. It’s OK if the song has somewhat of an identity crisis, because no matter how you sing it or set it, it’s a fun time!

“Havdallah Sweet” perfectly rounds out the album. It’s a great way to transition from the spiritual space that the previous dozen songs took you and the into mundane, quotidian world that you’ll find yourslef back in after the album is over. As another setting of the Havdallah blessings it doesn’t really offer any compelling new melodies for it, but it’s pleasant enough. However, what makes it a sweet “suite” is the rockin’ version of the traditional “Eliyahu HaNavi” that completes it. Elijah himself would groove to it!

The production values on this project are high (as one can usually say about projects produced at Scott Leader’s own Southwest Studios.) while it may be a matter of personal taste and choice, I do have a quibble about the vocals on the project. For almost all of the songs, the vocals feel a little bit dry. While I appreciate the clarity this gives the voices and the lyrics, just a tad more reverb depth would have made me happier. Of the three, Brodsky’s voice is best able to stand up to the clean mix, with his full, solid, supported sound, though Robbi and Scott are no slouches. The musicianship is of high caliber all around.

Add this one to your collection. You’ll be glad you did.

“It’s All Good” is available direct from Sababa, as well as through the usual outlets like and iTunes.

Adrian A. Durlester

Review-Sababa! Live at Sinai Temple

It was with some trepidation that I went to see Sababa lead a Friday Night Shabbat Service at Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA last night – especially since I just just posted a review of their new album, “It’s All Good.” After all, they’re not only colleagues, they’re friends. Yes, it was a good review, but as readers know, I can be awfully picky. You’ll note that, after talking with Scott, Robbi, and Steve, that I did update my review. It has always been my policy to offer artists a chance to respond to my reviews, and I’ll make changes to them sometimes on the basis of those conversations, as I did in this case. But enough about the album – which I like. I want to talk about the service they lead last night.

In a word, wow! Through the years, I’ve seen many a performer or band participate in a synagogue service. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes not so well. This worked really well.

The energy in the room was palpable. Steve, Robbi, and Scott connected easily with the congregation, yet at the same time managed to show respect for them. Sometimes, local minhag and visiting artists clash. Not so, in this case. Of course, the situation was helped by the presence and participation of Sinai Temple’s Cantor Martin Levson, who knows the trio. Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro ably led the service, knowing when to step back and let the music flow. He was also an active and eager singer (as was Cantor Levson.)

The combined experience of Sababa’s members has given them the wisdom to ably craft a workable service, and not turn it into a performance. Far too often, visiting artists or groups overwhelm the service with their own music, disregarding the local minhag. Sababa’s members clearly know how to create just the right mix – giving the congregation its “cats” (some of you may have heard this famous story as told by Rabbi Hoffman-as Tom Lehrer used to say “the rest of you can look that up when you get home .)

I do have a quibble, and it’s one that I have far too often at services. Sababa used a lot of melodies not their own. In fact, there were probably more non-Sababa-created tunes. It would have been nice to hear all those settings attributed (or at least written up in a service program.)

My second quibble is the length of the service. A phenomenon I have observed at far too many congregations, and in particular Reform congregations, are Friday night services that just try to pack too much in. In this case we had Sababa’s participation, along with the congregations youth choir “Shir Fun,” a touching “adult bat mitzvah” for a very special congregation, a blessing and short speech for graduating high school seniors, and a membership pitch. It made for a very long evening. Fortunately, it was all made endurable by Sababa’s presence.

Sababa was given a short period to just sort of “perform” some of their songs, and I think the congregation found their new music as accessible and enjoyable as I did and you will when you hear it on their albums, or live.

Sababa did manage to integrate a few of their new songs into the actual service, and they all worked well. I was pleased to observe that their “Adonai S’fatai” worked well live, as I had it pegged as more of a listening song in the album review.

The participation of the youth choir “Shir Fun” was nice to see (and it gave Robbi a chance to kvell over hearing one of her songs sung by a choir for the first time) though they were not very easy to hear, even given the pretty decent sound system in use. Overall, too, the room audio was a bit on the loud side. While it did help drive the overall ruach in the room, it also left a few ears ringing.

In conclusion, allow me to saw that with Sababa, I don;t think you can lose whether you invite them to your congregation to help with a service, or simply perform a concert. With Sababa, you get three consummate, sensitive, and talented professionals who understand what it takes to connect with people, whether performing, or working to create a spiritual space.

To learn more about Sababa, and booking opportunities, visit their website at

Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, April 19, 2010

Coming Soon – Reviews of Sababa’s New CD “It’s All Good” Abby Gostein’s “Blessing” and the lastest OyBaby CD

Coming soon: reviews of

  • The new Sababa CD, “It’s All Good”
  • Abby Gostein’s “Each Blessing”
  • Latest Release from OyBaby

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: Blessings – Peri Smilow

Peri Smilow Blessings CD Cover Some years back, just about the same time as the Hava Nashira songleading Workshops at OSRUI started in 1992, a bright star burst upon the contemporary Jewish liturgical music scene in the person of Peri Smilow and her album "Songs of Peace." Peri's golden voice and tasteful production values gave a series of familiar and new songs on the theme of peace a pleasant new presentation.  Her next album, Ashrey, in 1997,  featured the hit song of the same name, the powerful "Song for America, " along with one of my personal favorites, a new setting of "Ha Lachma Anya." Keeping with her 5-year cycle between releases, Peri next gave us "The Freedom Music Project" in 2002. This groundbreaking album features songs of Passover and Civil Rights, sung and backed by a vibrant young choir of Jewish and African-American voices. It's on my "must have" list of albums, and if you don't have a copy, rush right out and get one (or download it!)

Life sometimes intervenes, and Peri couldn't keep to her 5-year cycle for her latest release, but it was well worth the wait. It's so wonderful to hear Peri's golden voice again. This new CD features 8 new songs by Peri, a new setting of the Havdallah Blessings by a young Russian-Jewish-Israeli songwriter, along with two covers, "When I'm Gone" by Phil Ochs, and Janis Ian's "Joy."

Do I like this new album from Peri, and can I recommend it? The answer is an enthusiastic yes! Ask me why, however, and I might find it hard to answer, or at least answer in a way that makes sense. The closest I can come is to say that everything gels and comes together to create a top-notch production. Allow me a brief diversion for an analogy. For years, I had a career in theatrical production. A wise man once taught me about a philosophy which at first I thought was simply about shortcuts and saving time and energy. That philosophy was summed up in the acronym GEFTS - Good Enough For This Show. Despite outward appearances, this isn't about laziness, or getting away with the least possible effort. What it is about, is making sure that all elements of a production strive for the same (realistic, achievable, and communal) quality level. One can have a show with great actors and lousy lighting, or fabulous costumes and awful sound reinforcement. That usually doesn't work well. GEFTS is about making sure that every area strives for the best, without allowing any one area to so far surpass the others that it detracts. Some of the best shows I've seen are those in which all the elements achieve that same quality level. Sometimes that level was great, other times it was only mediocre. Yet even the mediocre productions were so well balanced that they congealed into a well-rounded whole, making them outstanding.

In the case of "Blessings." there's nothing mediocre about it. Every element is superb-songwriting, singing, arrangements, backup, studio production and mastering, etc. Similarly, there's nothing on it that so far outshines everything else that it detracts from the overall effect. Everything on this album is in balance. That's why I like it so much. Every song on the album is a great listen, and many are fun to sing, too!

It’s hard to miss when you’ve got Grammy-winning producer Ben Wisch on your project. Add to that world-class bass player Tony Levin, and the talented Elana Arian singing backup vocals, and you can see why this project came together at a top level, with production values as good as any typical high-end Indie album.

Peri starts off with a new setting of Psalm 96's "Shiru L'Adonai." Peri describes it as an instant camp creation, and it would certainly be fun to sing at camp (or services, or wherever.) Musically, I have a few quibbles. One is with the somewhat Phillip Glass-esque  repetitiveness, and the other with the melodic line, which, while it's aesthetically pleasing from a musician's perspective, I think its similar but not exactly the same lines with close intervals can make it harder to teach and harder to sing correctly. Of course, that's just my perspective. Peri's own liner notes report that just hours after writing and teaching it at camp, it was "performed by the very choir that inspired it." I particularly like the song's bridge, and think it's a great arrangement with superb production values.

The next song is the extremely powerful and emotional "Carry On." Peri's own life's journey has had it challenges, and this song speaks of the inspiration she received from relatives and friends along her own path to healing. For a song with such powerful lyrics, the presentation remains, even when it builds a bit near the end, somewhat understated. The song's strong, slow rhythm feels sometimes like one is carrying on a bit drudgingly, rather than with vibrant enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it's a truly inspiring song, by a gifted songwriter and great singer.

Peri also presents us with new settings of "Nishmat  Kol Chai" and "Ma'ariv Aravim" which are both pretty and pleasant; a "Priestly Blessing" that is truly beautiful, and a "Gomeil," the traditional prayer of one who survives a life-threatening situation, that is truly inspiring and uplifting. Peri's sweet voice graces these solid arrangements with tasteful instrumental and vocal backup. At once truly personal and majestic, Peri's "Gomeil" features a wonderful backup choir (more about that later) and is a piece that I hope begins to find wide use in the community, because it can work equally well, as it does on the album, in both a small, intimate way, and in a more glorious communal manner.

Peri also gives us two songs from a more feminist (and I don't mean that pejoratively) perspective. The first is the beautiful "Hineini" which is based on kavanot used at the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh. The second is the piece she was commissioned to write by the Women of Reform Judaism in celebration of the publication of  "The Torah: A Woman's Commentary." This milestone event is well served by Peri's "We Were There Too." It's a fun song, with an infectious beat, and with just enough of a touch of , jazzy, bluesy, gypsy, and other musical turns and twists to make it not-so-easy-to-classify the genre.

Peri was enthused with the music of the young Russian emigre to Israel Evgeny Leshenko. So much so that she recorded his setting of the Havdallah Blessings for this project, in hopes of introducing his music to the American Jewish community. It's a pleasant enough setting, and I do hope it finds some use (and I am sure it will) in congregations and camps. As I do with many songwriters, I'd like to encourage the young Evgeny to try setting some less frequently heard prayers, blessing, and p'sukim from our rich textual heritage to music, and put his obvious talents to work filling the gaps and voids in the spectrum of contemporary liturgical music. We've enough Sh'mas, Oseh Shaloms, and settings of the Havdallah Blessings to go around. That's not to say this isn't a version worth considering among the many others, for it truly is a musical and fun setting.

Finally, Peri presents two covers. The first is of Phil Och's "When I'm Gone." The arrangement is tight, and Peri's voice lends a new clarity and beauty to Phil's lyrics. Peri's take is somewhat laid back, and thus lacks urgency that's present in and drives the song's original incarnation. No matter, for Peri manages to deliver the same message in her own unique way.

The album ends with a cover of Janis Ian's "Joy." Peri manages to make this song her own, especially with the expert keyboard stylings of Josh Neslon in place of the guitar of the original recording. I do miss those few seconds of chorus that set apart the word "joy" on the original, nevertheless, Peri's version manages to get inside me just as Janis Ian's did.

In keeping with her penchant for working across boundaries, in “Gomeil” Peri’s backup singers are all from the Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, NJ. As I stated earlier, what makes this album work so well is that...well, everything works so well, and is top notch. It wasn't manic in some spots and depressive in others, though that's not to say it doesn't have variety. The mix of songs and styles in part of that certain something that this album has that makes it so good. Peri has a beautiful, lyric voice that's easy on the ears. The arrangements and backup musicians are all top notch and solid.  In summary, "Blessings" is worthy addition to your collection of Jewish music.

Janis Ian's "Joy" is perhaps the culmination of her 4 decade-long career. “‘Joy’ could be her ‘Forever Young’,” as reviewer Robin Cracknell put it. Let's hope "Blessings" is not the last we hear from Peri, because she, and her music truly are as the title says.

Blessings is available from the following sources:

Peri has a website: 
and a FaceBook page

Review: Reunion - Julie Silver

reunion CD cover

What do an old wicker chair, St. Patrick, Carole King, a Hollywood score writer and Torah have in common, and what are they doing together on a contemporary Jewish album? Leave it to Julie Silver to bring these disparate elements and more together in a musically stunning and aurally beautiful new album - Reunion. It has been far too long since we've had a new project from Julie. It was worth the wait. Reunion is the work of a mature, sophisticated, experienced artist, yet retains the spirit of the seeker that characterizes much of Julie's earlier work. Julie has always been a gifted songwriter, her words expressing the angst, peace, uncertainty, commitment, confusion, clarity, insecurity, pride and more that we all have in our lives. In Reunion, Julie's ability to turn everyday life situations and experiences into spiritual encounters imbued with teachings and meanings has achieved a new level of artistry and skill.

The album begins with the infectious "Step by Step." It's the perfect way to start this brave walk into the water that is "Reunion."

Songs like "The Barefoot Sisters" challenge us to come to terms with who we are, and teach us the lesson of Yitro - that we can and should learn from those outside our little circle. Her cover of Carole King's "Been to Canaan" aptly demonstrates that expressions that touch our Jewish souls can come from anywhere. In "Monica's Chair" Julie sings lovingly of the healing and comforting power of memory.

In "Where Am I?" Julie questions the often exclusionary content of our sacred texts, in this particular case, citing parashat Matot holding males accountable for vows yet relegating responsibility for women's vows to their fathers of husbands. May it be that her question does not fall on deaf ears.

There is no shortage of liturgical content. First, there's a song written many years ago that has found its way into regular use at many services, the inspiring "O Guide My Steps." This song has a special place in my heart, as I was there when it was created by (now Cantor) Debra Winston with contribution of a Hebrew lyric counter-melody by Julie. I know the emotion behind the initial genesis of song, and it still brings tears to my eyes. It's nice to hear a recording of the song by Julie, whose voice is perfectly matched with that of Rabbi Joe Black in this emotional duet. Oddly, this arrangement is light on the Hebrew counter-melody, spending most of its time on the English verses. Humility, perhaps?

There's a beautiful, melodic, peaceful and somewhat hypnotic setting of the healing prayer "R'faeinu" Julie graces us with a new setting based on the Y'hiyu l'ratzon/May the words entitled "Meditation" that is plaintively simple and hauntingly beautiful. No masks or technical tricks separate us from the outpourings of Julie's heart in this song, which allows her natural voice and natural vibrato to be heard. It's nice to see an artist willing to take that risk. This is generally true for most of the songs on this album - we get "natural" Julie. So many times, what you get in a live performance disappoints compared to a recording. Not so in Julie's case, and in particular on this album.  Close your eyes when listening to "Reunion"and it will really be like hearing her live.

Julie also includes four songs  written by the talented Hollywood composer David Kates. "Circles" explores the cycles in our lives, and dealing with loss and finding continuity.  in  "Lead the Way" expresses the hope of every parent and teacher for the children. There's also a gorgeous setting of "Dodi Li." The album closes with David Kates' joyful, spirited setting of "Halleluyah (Psalm 150.)" Like any good project should do, this final song leaves you wanting more. We're waiting, Julie!

There are those who might object to a Jewish album having seemingly tangential, even secular songs included. I'm not one of those. Judaism is not just a religion or culture. It is a way of thinking, living, doing, being. All our life experiences, from the quotidian to the awesome are in conversation with and informed by and inform our understanding of Judaism. Julie's songs are the authentic expression of that process, and we are all richer for her sharing that with us in her music.

Reunion is available from Soundswrite/URJ Books & Music

Julie Silver’s website is

Julie’s FaceBook page

Julie’s Twitter Page