Songs of freedom will resound as Mak’hela: the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts and vocalist Evelyn Harris herald the arrival of Passover and spring with a concert, “Let My People Go: Songs of Freedom.” The concert, which will feature traditional and contemporary arrangements from the classical, folk, pop and gospel songbooks, will take place at the Academy of Music on Sunday.
Mak’hela and Harris will present musical selections from the Jewish and African-American traditions, using secular as well as liturgical expressions of yearning for freedom and redemption.
The concert also will feature the world premiere of “That’s the Truth,” a piece by Pioneer Valley composer Clifton J. Noble Jr., to be performed by Harris with Mak’hela, the name of which means “chorus” in Hebrew.
Kayla B. Werlin, music director of Mak’hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, commissioned this piece for the choir with Harris, vocal soloist.
When: March 24, 4 p.m.
Where: Academy of Music, Northampton
Cost: General admission, $15; and seniors and students, $10
For more info: Call (413) 584-9032 ext.105or online at academyofmusictheatre.com
Harris is known for her 18-year tenure in the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
“I have never collaborated with Mak’hela before, but I have heard them and felt glorious about their sound ever since,” said Harris, of Easthampton. “I especially appreciate the chorus is mixed and celebrates the multicultural aspect of the members.”
Noble, staff accompanist at Smith College in Northampton and a music critc at The Republican, has worked both with Mak’hela and with Harris many times, and he said the combination of these two “potent artistic entities will prove to be a thrilling experience” for the musicians and the audience.
His work is for mixed chorus, vocal solo and piano. The words express the notion that good, decent people live their lives striving to find the truth, then inhabiting and expressing that truth as they see and believe it and treating others the way they would like to be treated.
Some of the words are Harris.’ “One morning she posted on Facebook something to the effect that ‘just when I think I’ve taken about as much as I can stand, I remember the Creator’s got a master plan…’ and I took that—with her permission—straight into my lyrics,” said Noble, a frequently commissioned composer/arranger.
“Knowing Evelyn’s experience with Sweet Honey in the Rock and her familiarity with a vast range of style and substance in jazz, gospel and rock music, I made ‘That’s the Truth’ into a gospel-rock number, and I remember Evelyn’s eyes lighting up at our first rehearsal together as she said, ‘No one has ever written me a rock song,’” said Noble, who has written least two commissioned works each year for about 20 years, and sometimes more.
“I am honored to join Mak’hela in this special concert, especially given the shared experience of slavery and redemption among African-Americans and the Jewish people,” said Harris, a Grammy-nominated stylist of jazz, pop, rock ’n’ roll, gospel and blues.
“There is no particular time of year that freedom and redemption are more important; it is an every-day struggle for us people of color and those at the margins of society,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting for a particular time of year to do that work. However, we do take this time to reflect with our allies and friends, colleagues and peers, to get rejuvenated and build our strength to keep on keepin’ on.”
Singing in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Italian and English, Mak’hela will perform works by such composers as opera master Giuseppe Verdi, contemporary Israeli composer Michael Wolpe and the Iberian legend Flory Jagoda.
“Many of the selections, including the aria ‘Va, Pensiero’ from Verdi’s Nabucco, are variations on the theme, ‘By the Waters of Babylon,’ the text from Psalm 137 that describes the longing for home and freedom of an enslaved people,” Werlin explained. “While the Passover-themed pieces by Michael Wolpe will be new to American listeners, other selections will be more familiar, including Noble’s rousing arrangement of the spiritual, ‘Go Down, Moses.’”
Mak’hela commissioned the arrangement of the African-American spiritual from him several years ago and has performed it here and in Israel.
“The Jewish tradition of remembering the Exodus every spring with the celebration of Passover brings to mind the themes of slavery and freedom,” Werlin said. “When we revisit those themes, we transcend time and place. We are grateful to our Jewish ancestors, who left the safe predictability of enslavement to wander in the desert in search of a new life. And we remember that our own country was built on the backs of slaves, and we still live in the shadow of slavery. Elsewhere in the world we see that slavery still exists, and we recommit ourselves to ’Tikkun Olam,’ healing the world.”
Now in its 10th season, the 50-voice chorus performs throughout New England and includes members from the Pioneer Valley and beyond.
“We are thrilled to be making our Academy of Music debut,” Werlin said. “It is rewarding to know that the music of the Jewish culture in the Pioneer Valley is valued and supported with such passion and enthusiasm.”
She wants members of the community to know that “there are songs your Jewish grandmother would be singing along with us, but we also have new music that would knock her socks off!”