This recording features songs composed for different Jewish texts, arranged and performed by Norma Brooks and Ramón Tasat, accompanied by a choir and several instrumentalists.
The story of my encounter with Norma Brooks’ music can be resumed as a musical shidakh.
Approximately five years ago, Natasha Jitomirskaia introduced me to her “Yehalelu” with enormous enthusiasm. Once I heard the vital melody sung by my talented friend my doubts disappeared at once. I perceived immediately one of Norma’s musical trademarks: her melodies ring “true” to the text. Norma’s profound intuition makes sure that after an agonizing analysis of the text, her melodic choices always remain subservient to the religious poem she sets. In fact my first recollection after hearing “Yehalelu” was that Norma’s melody was the “only” possible melody for that religious text. It will not be the last time I would come to that conclusion.
I was not going to hear Norma’s music or to meet her personally until the year 2000. Thanks to the persuasive skills of Rachel Braun, a mutual friend, I was convinced to transcribe Norma’s music for publication. Through Rachel, I began slowly to appreciate the variety and the subtlety of Norma’s work.
A different level of commitment began with “Shahar Avakeshkha.” Norma has composed a lavishly romantic melody, Brahmsian in character, that brought the words of Rabbi Sh. ibn Gabirol to life. The setting was meant to describe only the second stanza of the poem and I felt strongly that the first stanza should not be left out. With her characteristic generosity and humility Norma allowed me to try my hand at it and thus the beginning of the excerpt originated. Then came “Etz Hayyim Hi.” A day could not go by when I would not conceive another arrangement for what came to be a jazz like melody. Yes, Norma has an inner ear attuned to the times and she responds to text with modernity but never getting in the way.
The choral arrangements were intended to enhance what Norma had in mind from the very beginning: congregational participation. Her melodies exude a rare simplicity that invite or rather, seduce men, women and children to sing, to be part of prayer, to refuse to passively stay aside. Full congregational participation is particularly manifest in “Ul’amtuye,” “Areshet Sefateinu,” the mentioned “Etz Hayyim Hi” or “Tzadik kaTamar,” bursting with South American spirit, so dear to Norma. In the case of “Shira Hadasha,” “haAderet ve haEmuna,” “U veKhen Ten Pahdekha” or “’Ezrat Avoteinu,” congregants are active participants constantly exchanging with the Hazzan, the congregational leader. The antiphonal nature of these excerpts creates an energy that a single voice cannot ever transcend.
The intelligence and beauty that radiates from the above melodies would have conquered Norma a place of significance in the Jewish Liturgical arena. Yet, her compositional output does not stop surprising us, to challenge, to demand from us the same level of emotional intensity that Norma pours into her music and into her life. The profound lyricism of “BeSefer Hayyim,” the meditative quality of “ve Evrato,” the introspective “Tefilah le Shalom” or “U veKhen Ten Pahdekha,” true to the best Cantorial tradition, speak incessantly to the heart, immersing ourselves in our most intense passions.
A final warning. Norma Brooks’ music cannot and should not be considered background music. The texts she chooses, their musical treatment and their performance demand everything from us, require that we will attentively listen to them and that we participate offering our hearts. “Tefilah liM’dinat Israel,” dedicated to Yitzhak Rabin, is perhaps the most compelling example that life is too short and too valuable to be wasted running around in an unending dark circle. May Norma’s “abundance of light” illumine your days. It has already brightened mine.
Sopranos: Aviva Braun, Janet Braun, Rachel Hersh Epstein, Karen Schlesinger, Farlee Wade-Farber
Altos: Cindy Arnson, Rachel Braun, Norma Brooks, Ellen Garshick, Sarah LaRue, Meryl Weiner
Tenors: Edward Grossman, Alex Shilo, Ramón Tasat
Baritones: Mike Feldman, Rod Hudson, John Laster, John Peacock
Cindy Arnson: alto (11)
Norma Brooks: alto (1,6,11,12)
Rachel Hersh Epstein: soprano (2,7,9)
Natasha J. Hirschhorn: mezzo soprano (4,7,14)
Sophia Smith-Savedoff: soprano (9)
Ramón Tasat: tenor (2,3,7,8,9,10,11,12)
Farlee Wade-Farber: soprano (3)
Steve Bloom: percussion
Barbara Brown: cello
Julio Cazón: zampoñas, quena
David Gray: clarinet
Natasha J. Hirschhorn: piano
Don Junker: trumpet
Gantt Mann Kushner: electric bass
Eugenia Shiuk: flute
Leslie Silverfine: violin, viola
Ramón Tasat: guitar
Michael Wheaton: keyboard
Ramón Tasat: choral, vocal, and instrumental (2,3,5,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14)
Natasha J. Hirschhorn: choral (1,6,9), all piano
Michael Wheaton: instrumental (11)
Executive producer: Ramón Tasat
Associate producer: Norma Brooks
Production assistant: Rachel Braun
Recording and mixing: Gizmo Recording Company
Sound engineer: Gantt Mann Kushner
Mastering: Wolf Productions Inc.
Text editors: Rachel Braun, Ellen Garshick
Hebrew title: Rachel Braun
Translator: Everett Fox
Text consultants: Rachel Braun, Norman Shore, Esther Ticktin, Max Ticktin
Cover design: Cynthia Pearlman Benjamin
Layout design: Robert B. Lovato, Sound Recorders Inc., Austin, Texas
Photo of cover design by Tom Fritz Studios, Inc.; photo of Paul Lichterman by Margot Jones; photo of Hannah Ticktin by Mark Menke