After facing down a formidable Milken Community High School sound system and the best vocal efforts of the knights of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” who inadvertently “crashed” a recent rehearsal, the feat of harmonizing with 250 singers during a pair of sold-out concerts at New York City’s Lincoln Center should be a cakewalk for one local Jewish choir.
OK, maybe not a cakewalk, but come what may, HaZamir Los Angeles, the only West Coast chapter of the International High School Jewish Choir HaZamir, will be ready for its big event on March 17, said its founder, director and conductor Kelly Shepard. That’s when the group will perform in two concerts in celebration of HaZamir’s 20th anniversary.
Created by conductor Matthew Lazar, the Zamir Choral Foundation seeks to strengthen Jewish commitment through Jewish choral singing. HaZamir focuses on high school-age students. With more than 20 chapters across the country and in Israel, HaZamir — the word means “nightingale” — accepts students of all levels of Jewish faith.
When asked what brought them to HaZamir, current L.A. members gave an assortment of reasons, ranging from an interest in music, to word-of-mouth from past members to the prospect of joining a community. Many members of the current choir have sung with other choral groups both in and out of school.
“A lot of the songs are new for me, and I like learning new songs,” junior Danielle Lowe said. “The songs you learn here aren’t typical Jewish songs.”
To veterans like Shepard and some of his students, the annual Festival concerts are simply referred to as “Festival,” but even with several past successful showings under their collective belts, the returnees are anything but jaded.
“There’s a bigness you can never imagine until you’re in that moment,” said Shepard, who has taken six previous HaZamir groups to Festival. “One of my favorite moments of the whole weekend is the first time they all sing together. We sing the ‘HaZamir Anthem,’ which we have all sung individually in our local chapters for months. When we all sing it together — 300 teenagers — I make a point of looking at the rookies and seeing the expressions on their faces. It’s a bit of a mind-blow for them.”
“You’ve heard everybody sing before, but when you’re up there on that stage, there’s another feel to it, and you feed off everybody’s energy,” added Celine Torkan, a senior and participant in two previous Festivals who will graduate out of HaZamir at the end of the year. “And you shouldn’t be afraid to let go and pretend like you’re alone on stage like a pop star. Go out there and have fun.”
Torkan auditioned for and was accepted into the HaZamir Chamber Choir and even had a solo in last year’s Festival.
“I had a little extra time with some of the conductors to practice that solo and how I represent myself on stage and everything,” she said. “HaZamir has been such an amazing experience, and it’s so sad for me to think I’m going to be leaving this year.”
Starting in the fall, all of the HaZamir chapters in the United States and Israel start working on the same musical program. This year’s 10-song lineup includes the aforementioned anthem, two world premieres and the “Yugnt Hymn,” a song which Lowe said is “so hard that even listening to the track I can’t get it.”
“First of all, it’s in Yiddish, and I don’t speak Yiddish,” said Lowe, who is in her first year with HaZamir. “There are all these strange rhythms, and it’s difficult pronouncing all those words. Hopefully I’ll get it.”
At 23 members, the 2012-13 chorus is the largest yet for Shepard, and more than half are first-year members. The choir practices weekly at Milken in Bel Air, where Shepard — who is not Jewish — chairs the performing arts department. Not all of the choir members are from Milken; several have been recruited from elsewhere by Shepard, assistant director Rebecca Schatz and by enthusiastic members of HaZamir past and present.
On a Sunday late afternoon, two weeks before Festival, Schatz picked out a tune on a piano in the music room at Milken. Shepard was due to arrive after the final curtain of Milken’s production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which Shepard was conducting. The HaZamir singers would know exactly when the “Spamalot” was over — the sound system was blasting the audio of the performance into the music room, and neither Schatz nor any of the choir members knew how to turn off the system.
“Do your best to listen to each other,” Schatz told her singers, “and not to that.”
As a high school junior at Milken, Schatz went to Festival with Shepard before the HaZamir local chapter even officially existed. She eventually returned to Milken to assist Shepard even while she is enrolled in rabbinical school at nearby American Jewish University.
“It’s important that these kids really know their music and are really on top of their own musicality,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re aware of the intensity they’re about to walk into.”
For his part, Shepard had been a music instructor for several years at Milken when he was solicited by the Zamir Choral Foundation to open the L.A. chapter of HaZamir. Being part of the choir not only looks good on a college application, he said, it also helps build the foundation for a solid musical education.
“Generally speaking, students in Los Angeles are not getting from most public or private schools as good a music education as they could be getting,” Shepard said. “So it’s particularly good they have this opportunity. We work on musicianship and on the kinds of things I think music teachers should be working on.
“It’s not just about preparing music,” he continued. “It’s about understanding music for music’s sake and creating an environment to give them a rich music education as well.”
As he took Schatz’s position behind the rehearsal piano, Shepard guided his singers through “L’Eyla,” another HaZamir perennial. The song title translates to “upward” or “rise” and contains swelling melodies backed by African tribal beats. But it has a resonance to the Jews as well, and Shepard wanted to make sure that his singers understood exactly what kind of a song they were presenting.
“Think about this,” he told them. “Jews are rising through history, generations of Jews. Guess what: as many times as you try to kill us, here we are and we will continue to rise.”