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Elevator Chat: Eleanor Epstein, Artistic Director of Zemer Chai

Elevator Chat: Eleanor Epstein, Artistic Director of Zemer Chai


The Jewish Chorale of the Nation’s Capital

May 04, 2016Arts Across Maryland

Not many people can say they recognized and stuck with a career that fulfills their life, and few have had the opportunity to do what they love for four decades. Epstein found her calling by creating Zemer Chai, which means, “living song” in Hebrew. The chorale came together in 1976 while Epstein was in her 20’s.

Forty years later, Zemer Chai, located in Kensington, and known as The Jewish Chorale of the Nation’s Capital, continues to draw audiences from Maryland and across the Mid-Atlantic. A lifelong student of Jewish music and text, she grew up in a family steeped in Jewish learning and song.  As a student of acclaimed American composer Alice Parker, Ms. Epstein is also an accomplished arranger whose choral settings of Jewish folk songs performed throughout the world.

Epstein works internationally as a guest conductor and artist-in-residence. She has performed, collaborated and consulted with wide-ranging groups, from The North American Jewish Choral Festival, Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Australian Jewish Choral Festival, to the Music Educators National Conference, and the Soldiers’ Chorus of the United States Army Field Band.

Epstein’s goal is to protect, preserve and promote Jewish choral music. The chorale’s 36 singers perform the full range of the Jewish choral repertoire, from classical and liturgical pieces to world Jewish folk music in multiple languages, and new works composed exclusively for the choir.  

MSAC:  How did you come up with the idea for Zemer Chai at such a young age? What or who inspired you to make the chorale come to fruition?

EE: Actually, I had already been conducting choirs at various synagogues in Maryland. Rabbi Dan Polish at Temple Beth Ami asked if I could create a special program for Jewish Music Month. I gathered all the singers I had been working with to create a choir for that evening. Everyone had so much fun that the request was made to continue and have this be the nucleus for a Jewish Community Choir, as nothing like that existed back then. I agreed, and Zemer Chai was born!

MSAC: What are the high points of your four-decade career as Artistic Director?

EE: There have been many! What comes to mind first are the many opportunities we have had to share our music with the wider community. Such as at interfaith performances at the National Cathedral, the Shrine and many other churches in Washington D.C. and Maryland, at the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the annual Montgomery County Martin Luther King commemoration collaborating with The Heritage Signature Chorale and Coral Cantigas. Each time is a reaffirmation that the possibility of harmony among all faiths and cultures is real. Also, the commissioning of new music - bringing new choral music into the world has been wonderful.

MSAC: What venues are you most proud of performing, and are there any special occasions you would like to share?

EE: We have made three trips to Israel, which were very meaningful for the singers.  We have sung in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Locally, it was a privilege to sing at the Library of Congress and an honor to sing for President and Mrs. Obama at the White House.

MSAC: Are any original members from 1976 still performing with you or those who have been with you for many years?

EE: There is much longevity in Zemer Chai. Twenty-five per cent of the singers has been in the choir for more than 30 years. Almost half of the choir has been here for 20 years or more. However, what is most inspiring to me are the young singers who want to join, to sing this repertoire. They are the future, and it is wonderful to have them all. Zemer Chai ranges in age from early twenties to mid-eighties. Just as I wanted a pan-denominational choir, that is, singers from all walks of Jewish life, it is wonderful to have such a wide age-span - especially these days when there is more and more age segregation in our culture.

MSAC: Tell us about the 40th Anniversary Concert “Impressions.” Who is featured and about the commissioned song in honor of the anniversary?

EE: “Impressions” will offer our listeners a rich taste of Jewish music and tradition. I have gathered a multiplicity of texts, all of which, for me, reflect the core of Judaism - that is, those values and behaviors that have been impressed upon us and which we wish to impress upon our children - a way of living in the world that will create the world we all wish to live in.

The centerpiece is a new composition, “higid L’cha” by a wonderful composer, Steve Cohen, which was commissioned in honor of our 40th anniversary. The words of “Higid L’cha” from the Biblical book of Micah are the overarching theme of this concert - “We have been told what is good and what is required of us - to do justice, to love kindness and to walk in humility.”

The concert features a wide range of passionate composers who treasure the words they are setting. Several guest artists will help to make this a special occasion.  My intention, as always, is to bring the words to life - hopefully in a way that will speak to this generation at this moment in history.

Zemer Chai’s 40th Anniversary Concert, “Impressions,” is June 5, 2016 at 5 p.m. at Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec St. NW, Washington, D.C.