On A Musical Museum Tour
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On A Musical Museum Tour

In an unusual pairing of antiquities and music, the Yeshiva University Museum offered a program chosen by the cellist Elad Kabilio, accompanied by the clarinetist Avigail Malachi-Baev and the singer Inbal Sharret-Singer, to illuminate its exhibition of ten model synagogues. The selections reflect what might have been heard around the time of the synagogues’ creation.

The models, made in 1972, represent some of the most significant Jewish worship spaces in world history, starting with the Beth Alpha synagogue of the Lower Galilee, shown as it was around 244 CE, and ending with the nineteenth-century Tempio Israelitico of Florence. Among the others are the Ari Synagogue of Tzfat, Prague’s Altneuschul, the Zabludow Synagogue of Poland, and Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island. The models alone are well worth seeing, combining the uncanny charm of the miniature with a surprisingly strong evocation of numinous power. Even a tiny shul inspires one to imagine how Jews have worshipped God over the millennia.

The idea of adding music that matches the time and geography of the model synagogues is ingenious. One has to say that it’s also, in a number of ways, impossible: as Kabilio tells the audience right away, there is no record of what sort of music might have been heard in the earliest synagogues. He does not mention, though, the unlikelihood of a woman’s singing being heard in later Orthodox shuls. And what’s more: the audience spends much of the program seated in the intimate performance space created in the gallery, where there’s no way to do more than glimpse the models while listening.

However, all this is just caviling. Indeed I mention some of the difficulties only because the three wonderfully talented musicians overcome them so well. Elad Kabilio, the director as well as the cellist, describes the synagogues’ histories and explains his musical choices with winning enthusiasm. He has found a balance between Sephardi and Ashkenazi music; two of the standout pieces were Ladino songs, Avraham Avinu and Adio Querida. He and Avigail Malachi-Baev also come up with some convincing klezmer tunes. Everyone is helped by the galleries’ surprisingly good acoustics.

The most successful piece, to my mind, was the first –- so be sure to get there on time. In fact, get there early and have a good look at the models before the performance. The first piece is Adonha-Selichot, Lord of Forgiveness, a popular Yom Kippur piyyut. This is performed with the audience standing before the model of the Beth Alpha synagogue. Inbal Sharret-Singer begins solo and only after the first chorus do Elad Kabilio and Avigail Malachi-Baev, standing at the corners, join in. The hymn is thus performed in the round, immersing the audience in song. This supernally lovely performance alone would make the program worth attending, but you’ll be glad you stayed for the whole thing.

Two additional performances are on March 10 and April 30, 6 to 9 pm at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish Histoy, 15 West 16th Street, New York. Tickets are $25, $15 for students, seniors and members.

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