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Going strong at 80

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2006-12-05

London Jewish Male Choir

London Jewish Male Choir

When journalist and broadcaster Norman Lebrecht turned five he was ecstatic because he was allowed to join his synagogue choir.

Introducing Sunday's concert marking the 80th birthday of the London Jewish Male Choir (LJMC), Lebrecht said it was a tragedy Jews youngsters today don’t feel the same enthusiasm to sing in shul.

“We have to put our heads together and do something to revive the choral tradition of Anglo-Jewry which is dying out,” he begged the audience.

A good way to start would be to give away free tickets to the next LJMC concert, as the 80th birthday concert at the St. John's Smith Square venue was so uplifting.

The choir was founded in 1926 by Isadore R Berman, whose musical talent was widely respected by his contemporary Jewish community. He found his troops from the capital’s synagogue choirs, but unlike today all the recitals were in Yiddish.

The choir currently has some outstanding soloists who revealed their gifts at Sunday’s event, supported with gusto by 44 choristers. Some of their performances of Yiddish and Hebrew songs were so poignant they stole me away from my hectic journalist’s life and made me feel a connection with past generations of Jews living in vastly different circumstances.

When soloist Gedalya Alexander sang V’Hu Rachum the audience was absolutely still – stunned by his sweet haunting notes (he sang it alone, without backing from the rest of the choir.) Alexander is the Cantor of Finchley Synagogue and took up the vocation after being moved by the wonderful renderings of prayers by the famous Cantors of the early 20th Century. He also sites his grandfather as an inspiration. Among the other soloists, show-stopping turns were given by Stephen Robins – the longest serving Chazan of the United Synagogue – and Steven Leas, one of the biggest names on the UK Cantor scene.

The programme was wonderfully varied, covering prayers, tunes from 1930s Yiddish cinema, traditional East European Yiddish numbers and Israeli peace songs.

There were some well known songs which had the audience itching to join in, such as a medley of Adon Olam tunes, and the Shecheheyanu prayer set to

As one of the most well-known Jewish songs Hava Nagilah was a real crowd pleaser – the Jewish equivalent of that moment at Led Zeppelin concerts when they played the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven.

Although it wasn’t a chance to tap your feet, the audience were pleased to hear a version of Avinu Malkeinu – a song which would stir something deep for even the most lapsed Jew.

In between the singing Lebrecht entertained the crowd with snippets of the LJMC’s history and musings on the relationship between Judaism and music.

After the concert Lebrecht told “The performance tonight was terrific as the choir sang with real vim. It is what you’d expect as they are an extremely professional and well-rehearsed outfit.”

We also spoke to composer Joseph Finlay, the choir’s associate  composer/arranger (he writes or adapts tunes for them).

Finlay said: “Tonight’s concert was outstanding and the choir performed better than normal, swept along by the significance of the occasion.” He didn’t feel the music could only be appreciated by Jews even though none of it was in English, saying “Good music crosses all boundaries."

However those Jewish members of the audience were bound to have come away proud of their musical heritage, and determined to check if their kids were old enough to qualify for joining the shul choir.

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London Jewish Male Choir