Music Notes: opera stars honor the memory of a mentor | Letters | Chicago Reader

Music Notes: opera stars honor the memory of a mentor 

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Singers call them "church jobs," the regular weekend work that saves the world's most promising vocalists from starvation and full-time office careers. Of course some church jobs are better than others. For 50 years one of the better ones was not in a church but at K.A.M. Temple (now K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation) in Hyde Park, where Max Janowski, a world-renowned voice teacher and composer of Jewish liturgical music, was the musical director.

On Saturday two of Janowski's former students, baritone Sherrill Milnes and mezzo-soprano Isola Jones, will join tenor Nico Castel for A Time of Singing, a concert in memory of Janowski and his wife Gretel. All three stars of New York's Metropolitan Opera have volunteered their time, and the money they raise will go into a musical-scholarship fund in the name of the Janowskis. Milnes, a native of Downers Grove and one of the world's most often recorded baritones, and Jones, a Chicago native and one of the Met's famous Carmens, both credit Janowski with a major role in starting their careers.

Castel, famous for his character roles at the Met, was born in Portugal to a family of Orthodox rabbis. He is also known as an interpreter of the liturgical music and ladino songs of Sephardic Jews, a tradition Janowski incorporated in his compositions.

Janowski, who directed music at K.A.M. until his death in April 1991, wrote more than 500 compositions, many of which have made their way into the regular music programs of hundreds of Christian and Jewish congregations throughout North America and Europe. He began composing in the 1930s, when American Jewish liturgical music consisted almost exclusively of tunes carried over by Ashkenazi immigrants. Janowski championed a more dynamic approach. He believed that music was a living tradition, that new music contributed to the vitality of both faith and community. His own compositions sought to create a universal Jewish music by incorporating Middle Eastern folk melodies and traditional songs from Sephardic Jews into the mainstream of Ashkenazi music. Though highly controversial at first, his music ultimately gained wide acceptance, and his most famous works, "Avinu Malkeynu" and "Sim Shalom," are a regular feature at Jewish holiday observances at hundreds of American synagogues.

The concert will feature the songs of Janowski, works by Bach, Handel, Verdi, as well as a selection of Yiddish and ladino folk songs. It begins at 8 PM Saturday, June 20, at K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, 5039 S. Greenwood; ticket prices are $15, $25, and $40. Call 883-2440.


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