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Presenting Jewish Music In A Christian Church

March 16, 2007

Churches have become so ubiquitous as concert venues over the last several hundred years that people very rarely pay attention to their appropriateness as places to hear and see live music. In fact, the only time I have personally experienced a church reneging on its usual status as a presenter of music was when Canterbury Cathedral, despite hosting the local King's School's annual concert for many years, refused to be part of a performance of Carmina Burana in the early 1990s on the grounds of the work's "heretical" aspects. The piece was performed in the school's own concert hall instead, as I recall.

Some venues that double up as places of worship, such as Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, have glorious acoustics and a spacious yet intimate atmosphere which makes them ideal as places to present music. Tonight, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell is playing a solo concert at the cathedral. The gig is part of San Francisco Jazz Festival's "Sacred Space" series, and the name is justly deserved.

But sometimes churches are horrible places for hearing music. Yesterday evening, I attended a performance of 16th century Jewish chamber music given by Ensemble Lucidarium from Italy. The concert was part of the Jewish Music Festival and the venue was the First Congregational Church on Channing Way in Berkeley.

At the most superficial level, one might question the appropriateness of presenting Jewish music in a Christian church at all, but that's hardly the issue. After all, I've seen many great performances of music from many different faiths and cultures presented in cross-cultural venues very successfully in the past.

The problem I had with this concert had nothing to do with religious issues. It was simply the lousy acoustics. The performers' energetic music involved the stamping of feet, clapping of hands, and a combination of different percussion effects. All of this sounded like mush in the church. The sound was so muffled that it was hard to distinguish individual melodies. In this case, the choice of performance space turned what should have been a feisty, sparkling, and joyous musical event into a soggy mess. With its diverse program of music in several different languages (Yiddish, Italian, Hebrew etc), the concert delightfully illustrated the melting pot of Jewish culture in Italy in the 16th century. It was unfortunate, however, that the sound reminded one of a melting pot too.

Perhaps this church would work well as a venue for large-scale, lush Romantic orchestral music, but it's hopeless as a place to hear pieces that demand a crisper, plainer sound.

Churches are easy environments to present concerts: They're often quite big, inexpensive to hire, and in a central location. But concert promoters should think twice about using them. They're not always the best choice. Last night's event, for one, would have been better performed outside on the grass.

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