Aspen concert of Jewish music mines rich tradition |

Aspen concert of Jewish music mines rich tradition

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Among the blizzard of gags in the 1977 movie “Airplane!” is the one where a passenger asks for some light reading. The stewardess hands the man “Famous Jewish Sports Legends,” the slimmest leaflet she can find.Rollin Simmons faces something like the opposite issue. In programming her first professional concert, Simmons, the cantor of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, was confronted with an overabundance of material to pick from. The concert, set for 5 p.m. Thursday at Paepcke Auditorium, is titled “Voice of the Ages: A Journey Through Jewish Song.” It doesn’t feature any Israeli music, or klezmer, a tradition that came from the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. There is basically nothing from Tin Pan Alley, and only the slightest bit of Broadway – both forms that were nearly dominated by Jewish composers. There are no songs out of the European classical-music tradition, which takes Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Korngold off the program (as well as Mahler and Mendelssohn, both born and raised Jewish). There’s no rock, which removes the likes of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Dire Straits and Steely Dan, Lou Reed and the Beastie Boys, as well as Kiss and Phish, both of which have 50 percent Jewish membership.Even taking all of that off the table left Simmons with quite a few options. The concert has Yiddish tunes, songs that incorporate text from the Hebrew bible, and works from the Ladino tradition, a language that originated with the Sephardic Jews in Spain, after they were expelled from the country in the 15th century. A segment of the concert is folk music, written by or inspired by the late Debbie Friedman, Simmons’ teacher at Hebrew Union College in New York, and a pioneer in Jewish folk songs. Several of the performers have contributed original songs, and the program also includes some touches of music theater: “Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” and “This New Jerusalem,” from Alan Menken’s “King David.””I really wanted to present the breadth of Jewish music,” said Simmons, a 32-year-old who graduated from Hebrew Union College last year, then took the job with the Aspen Jewish Congregation last summer. (Her husband, David Segal, is the congregation’s rabbi.) “But that’s a huge range, and it’s a hard term to define: Is it Jewish text? Is it using Jewish composers? But it’s all Jewish themes of some sort.”The concert, which features six singers, including Simmons, and a pianist/conductor, is a benefit for the Aspen Jewish Congregation. Some proceeds will also go to the Hebrew Union College, in the memory of Debbie Friedman, to send students to the Hava Nashira music workshop.As for why the Jewish faith has produced so much music, Simmons could speak only of her own experience.”I think music is a way of having a conversation with God without words, with something more profound than words alone,” she said. “The reason I became a cantor was because I find music takes me to a spiritual place that nothing else can achieve. And having these six musicians join me, that’s important for me. When we all sing together, it creates something even more holy.”

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