In music, stories

By Michael Greenstein.

At the very end of his life, Leonard Cohen zeroed in on his Jewish roots, specifically the “hypnotic groove and surprise of a great synagogue choir.” The influence of choral music on this secular cantor of “Hallelujah” and “Hineni” resurfaces in his final call, “You Want It Darker.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s seminal essay, “The Vocation of the Cantor,” may be extended to include the vocalization of Cohen’s choir. Heschel lists the difficulties facing the Cantor: “the call to prayer often falls against an iron wall….The Cantor has to pierce the armour of indifference. He has to fight for a response.”

At this point the choir becomes an intermediary, a minyan within a minyan that echoes the solo performance with a group response that reaches out and into the rest of the congregation. The choir assists in piercing the armour of indifference.

Heschel continues: “To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that the glory is present.” In light of our recent performance of “Glorious,” these words certainly ring true. A choir may function as a cantor’s instrument, complementing and supplementing his or her voice. The 40 voices at Holy Blossom create a fullness of sound unique among Toronto’s synagogues.

Our choir has a life of its own, with specific interaction among its 40 members, who range from professional to amateur. There may be a wink, a knowing smile, a nod of recognition, or a humorous word or gesture to break up the solemnity. The varieties of musical moods play themselves out during rehearsals and services.

CBC’s website lists the medical benefits of bonding within a choir. Each member brings his or her own background to contribute. In my own case, I had absolutely no choral training or preparation, but a lifetime of Hebrew liturgy seems to have risen up from the past. Traditional melodies have been refined and updated, thanks to Beny’s devotion to detail. Thanks also to Shelley and the other professionals who have guided me throughout the entire process.

Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1981), includes a brief observation about “the orchestral conductor” in his powerful book, Crowds and Power (1960). His social and psychological analysis appears as a reaction to fascism earlier in the twentieth century, but is certainly relevant to today’s rise of populism. His discussion parallels Heschel’s admonition: “A conductor ranks himself first among the servants of music.” This statement re-introduces the paradox of the servant who is nevertheless ranked first. What Canetti says about the orchestra may be applied to the choir: “The willingness of its members to obey him makes it possible for the conductor to transform them into a unit, which he then embodies.” Beny, Lindi, and Nadia always aspire to embody glorious music and inspire the rest of us towards Cohen’s hypnotic groove.

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