Editor’s note: A recent article on COLlive solicited information from the public on the Chabad symphonic event in the mid-70’s. Here’s what was learned from responses in the public comment section as well as privately. We thank our readers for filling in the details of this interesting bit of history.
In the early 1970’s, Dovid Steingart, OBM, a young 20-year old musician on his journey to authentic Jewish living found himself studying at the Hadar Torah Yeshivah in Crown Heights. One of the highlights of his experience among Chabad Chassidim was hearing Niggunim sung at Farbregens with the Rebbe. Another student, Dovid Louis, an accomplished trumpet player, composer, and orchestrator, was also taken by the rich musical heritage of Chabad and the two swiftly became friends. At one point they decided to do a fundraiser for Hadar Torah by arranging a symphony performing key Chabad Niggunum. Dovid Louis would write the orchestrations and Dovid Steingart would promote the event. With the approval of the higher-ups they set about making it happen. The fundraiser was titled “The Chabad Symphonic Experience.”
Mrs. Ellen Gordon was one of many who helped organize the event and recalls having her house serve as ground-zero for the preparation. “Dovid Louis was busy with editing and writing out the parts for each musician, and Dovid Steingart who lived upstairs was busy working on promoting the event, it was a hub of activity and very exciting times.” Mrs. Gordon shared a cassette of portions of the symphony (clips below).
Zalman (“Jerry”) Jofen, OBM, an accomplished experimental filmmaker, along with several students, shot a 42-minute B&W 16mm film that was to be shown at the event titled “Rituals & Demonstrations,” a documentary about Jewish religious rituals in 1970’s Brooklyn. It showed portions of a Farbreng with the Rebbe, as well as a visit to the Ohel. It was later shown in an exhibit at the “Whitney Museum of American Art” and at an event at “MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).” The Village Voice wrote about the film: “[The film’s] most effective scenes celebrate the collective energy of Chassidic life. There are some wonderfully observed street scenes of Purim and a particularly lovely wedding ceremony; a sequence of an elderly Torah scribe carries so great a sense of tradition and awe as to render explanation superfluous. Jofen’s film testifies to the inexhaustible richness of his subject matter.”
The students borrowed money for the event from kind-hearted people in Crown Heights and hired musicians from the Metropolitan Opera House to perform. The symphony was held in the Queens College Colden Auditorium on Chol HaMoed Pesach, 1973. The event cost approximately $20,000 dollars (about $150,000 in today’s money) and despite all the efforts it wasn’t financially successful due to poor interest and ticket sales. At the end, tickets were given out for free to Bochrim from 770 who came in a specially chartered bus. In all about 150 people turned out to the concert.
On the evening of the Chabad Symphonic Experience, Dovid Louis, dressed in a Kapota and black fedora hat in lieu of the traditional conductor’s penguin tux, lead the orchestra through some of Chabad’s seminal Niggunim, including the soul-stirring and powerful “Tzomo Lecho Nafshi,” attributed to the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745–1812), founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and the majestic and lively “Mittler Rebbe’s Kapelia,” an important work from the times of the second Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Dovber, the “Mitteler Rebbe” (1773-1827). Part of the evening’s program included a demonstration of an authentic Chassidic Farbreng as an introduction to the non-affiliated in the audience. The stage was set with a table and chairs and Chassidim sat around the table Farbrenging. Rabbi Sholom Ber Vishedski from Hadar Torah shared stories and words of Chassidus in his inimitable English and the Chassidim sang songs. The film “Rituals & Demonstrations” was shown on a huge screen hung from the rear of the stage. Audience members recall feeling the presence of the Rebbe as he appeared imposingly on the unusually large screen. Following the event, the students leapt on stage for an impromptu dance.
“Hopefully we need not wait too long for another Chabad symphonic event,” says Chabad music producer Zalman Goldstein, who produced the more recent Chabad Centennial Symphony in Manhattan, in 2002. “People keep asking me ‘Nu, when’s the next symphony?’ and I usually respond ‘probably on the next centennial.’ But I’m sure something will come sooner than that. There are so many incredible Chabad Niggunim that shine and inspire in ways many people never fully grasped only when performed by a full and powerful symphony.”
With the spread of Jewish music over the past decades across all spectrums there’s no question that a Chabad symphony, double in size than the previous ones and performing some of the most powerful Niggunim of Chabad, will surely be something many will look forward to.
“Come to think of it, it’s about 200 years since The Mittler Rebbe’s Kapeliah was composed, so we actually have a centennial to celebrate,” posits Goldstein playfully. “But practically speaking it would only be doable with major financial support from those with an appreciation for the music to pull it off on the proper scale. The costs of putting together a symphonic event have gone up considerably over the past decade, were talking at least $150,000 – $200,000, so it’s really up to those who can make this happen on the financial side. Perhaps the finding of the lost reel from the 1973 performance was a hint that the time has come to get working on it. Once it finally happens, it will definitely be breathtaking and unparalleled in all of recent Jewish music history; and once thing is certain, I’m ready!”
To reach Zalman Goldstein, email [email protected]
Audio- click to play or right click and save to download:
01. Bnei Heicholo
02. Tzomo L’Cho Nafshi
03. Mitteler Rebbe’s Kapeliah
04. Niggun Hagodol Strashela
05. Mitteler Rebbe’s Kapeliah (ver. 2)
06. Alter Rebbe’s Niggun
08. Niggun 2
09. Hop Cussak
10. Bnei Heicholo Concerto – Piano
11. L’Chatchila Ariber – Piano