This past Thursday night, in the basement of Mechon Hadar on the Upper West Side, nearly sixty people gathered to sit in the round and listen and participate with the music being performed by Joey Weisenberg and several other musicians. Weisenberg, a staff member at Hadar who leads regular music and singing workshops, also teaches at JTS, Hebrew Union College, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. An accomplished singer, guitarist, percussionist, and mandolin player, Weisenberg played mandolin and guitar on Thursday night, and was joined by the Hadar Ensemble, which featured two vocalists, a violinist, a fiddler, a stand-up bass player and a hand drummer.
Weisenberg and friends were gathered together to celebrate the release of “Nigunim Volume III: Live in the Choir Loft,” the most recent offering in Weisenberg’s “nigunim series,” a collection of original takes on the nigun, or wordless melody, most often associated with the Chasidic movement.
Some of the songs Weisenberg performed were his interpretations, with original arrangements, of classic standards, including “Anim Zmirot,” while others were his own fresh take on the nigun. Such was the case with the set highlight, “Song of Descents,” whose haunting and appropriately descending melody was first sung by Weisenberg and then matched by a ghostly response from the other vocalists. A jazzy, repetitive bass line infused energy into another nigun, while a third allowed the other two vocalists, Mattisyahu Brown and Deborah Sacks, to offer lovely solos.
Weisenberg, who also serves as musical director at the Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, has been holding regular Tuesday night musical gatherings for local musicians to come jam, up in the synagogue’s choir loft (hence the name of the new album). At Hadar, he joked how wonderful it felt for him to leave the expansiveness of the loft, which overlooks rows and rows of empty pews, for the smaller, more intimate confines of the far corner of the packed Hadar basement.
Elie Lichtschein is a NY-based writer currently pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing. He runs a monthly musical project called Celebrate Hallel.