Review of Voices of Shekhinah: Four Illuminations

Vol. 33, No. 26 December 16 through December 22, 2005

by Eileen Wingard

Reprinted with permission of Publisher Michael J. Schwartz

Voices of Shekhinah Heard

The centerpiece of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra's Nov. 15 concert in the Cohen Social Hall was Valarie Morris' "Voices of Shekhinah: Four Illuminations," a remarkable work featuring four women's voices accompanied by orchestra. This composition, commissioned by Tifereth Israel Synagogue to commemorate its 100th anniversary, depicts four Jewish women. Three are historical figures: Sarah, the first matriarch mentioned in Genesis, Beruriah, a 2nd century Talmudic scholar from the Galilee, and Gracia Nasi, the Sephardic business genius who rescued kinsmen from the inquisition. The fourth woman, Lila, symbolizes the Jewish woman of today. Morris, through her choice of instruments and modes, suggests the era of each character.

The Prologue opens with a shofar call, using text from "The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women." The four voices sing in chorus to describe the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. Harp, flute, bells and cymbals convey the ancient biblical era.

"Sarah," beautifully intoned by mezzo-soprano Sylvia Lorraine Hartman, sings with Semitic-style ornamentation. "Beruruiah," with coloratura passages, was rendered by silver-voiced Anna Bjarnson-Carson. The orchestration includes the accordion, suggestive of an ancient organ. Introduced by brass fanfares and accompanied by amplified guitar, giving a Ladino flavor to the movement, Contralto Ava Baker Liss was convincing as the strong, queenly "Gracia."

Morris wrote the text for the final section, "Lila," based on interviews with girls at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Sung by sweet-voiced Julienne McWhirter, "Lila" has a contemporary sound and the text reflects the thoughts and ideals of the young modern American Jewish Woman:

"My generation's strong,
My generation is bright, healthy, and honest.
We can do it all. We must!
With the help of our mothers before us,
The Voices of the Shekhinah call to us."

Morris has done scholarly research for her textual and musical material. As a result, the words, instrumentation, melody and harmony come across with authenticity. Conductor David Amos, the soloists and TICO are to be commended for their outstanding performance of Morris' opus.

Another dimension of the presentation was local artist Viviana Lombrozo's brilliant visual versions of the four illuminations. These large paintings adorned the back wall during the concert and were for sale as a fundraiser for TICO.

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