Lighting songs with sense and color

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Rollin Simmons, center, cantor of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, leads the Beyond Belief concert today at the Aspen District Theatre.
Craig Navias |

Sometimes songs just wash over us, leaving a pleasant but vague afterglow — the sound of a voice, a neat line of lyrics, a catchy melody. With the “Beyond Belief” concert tonight, though, Rollin Simmons, cantor of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, aims to have the songs penetrate into listeners’ beings on a deeper level.

“Beyond Belief,” with the subtitle “Sounds of Sacred Searching,” pairs songs with stories and then puts faces to the package. Eight local residents were filmed speaking about their experience of faith in four categories: childhood, questioning, struggling and gratitude. The videos will be shown, and then a group of six cantors from around the country, accompanied by New York City pianist Joyce Rosenzweig, will perform songs that illustrate the theme.

Simmons modeled today’s concert, at 5 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre, on the project she did for her senior recital in 2010 at the Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. To illustrate her thesis on interfaith worship, she created an event around the stories of people who worked at Hebrew Union — a Baptist security guard, a maintenance worker who was studying to be a Pentecostal minister, an information technology man who told of how difficult it could be going door to door spreading the word about being a Jehovah’s Witness.

“The music took on new meaning because it was in a different context,” said Simmons, a 34-year-old who was raised in Massachusetts and has lived in Aspen for three years. “The dean spoke about her love for the Hebrew language; then I sang a song about learning the alphabet. Something resonated more deeply because you heard her talking about it.”

Certain to create an indelible experience will be Snowmass Village resident Alyssa Genshaft speaking about her son Max, who died in January at 17 months old.

“She’s so honest and wise and real about her struggle. When we did the interview, I was so moved,” Simmons said.

Simmons will follow the video with the song “Merciful God” — “about being angry with God,” she said. “It will be an intense moment. I hope I can get through it.”

As with her school project, Simmons has put an interfaith component to tonight’s performance. Among the people featured is Reynis Vazquez, a young Catholic, who will speak about questioning her beliefs.

“She’s thought a lot about her faith,” Simmons said. “When she went to Colorado Rocky Mountain School, for the first time she saw people with other religions or no religion. That forced her to think about her faith. And she came out, I think, with a stronger sense of it.

“I want people to hear these stories and appreciate there are so many different ways of having faith, so many different ways of hearing things.”

Also sharing his story will be Eden Vardy, founder and director of the environmental organization Aspen T.R.E.E.

“He talks about how his faith relates to the earth, his passion for the environment, how he feels a spiritual connection to taking care of the earth and being in the woods,” Simmons said, adding that the story will be paired with a text from Psalm 98 — “The Mountains Are Singing” — set to an Israeli melody.

Another thread through the concert is the history of American music. Among the songs on the program are a setting of “David’s Lamentation” by 18th-century composer William Billings, who specialized in a form known as shape-note singing, and, in the questioning section, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess.”

Simmons said that her senior recital had an element of holiness to it.

“People were saying afterwards, ‘Was it performance, or was it a prayer experience?’” she said. “I think people really felt something; it got to their core. To hear Jose” — the maintenance worker at Hebrew Union — “tell how much he liked working in the seminary, that was something.”

Simmons hopes that the stories that accompany the songs in tonight’s concert illustrate the music in a similar fashion.

“I think the music will take on a new power,” she said.