By Andrew Adler
There’s a moment in composer Joel Thompson’s “To Awaken the Sleeper” where a whirlwind of instrumental chaos gives way to noble figures in the horns — what Thompson describes as “a clarion call, a prophetic vision” of what a more just nation might achieve.
Such an imperative could well apply to Journeys of Faith, a months-long partnership among four pairs of area synagogues and historically Black churches that culminated (for now, anyway) with a March 11 concert by the Louisville Orchestra at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall.
In what amounted to an affirmation in triplicate, music director Teddy Abrams conducted the Louisville Orchestra in a program of works by Thompson, Tyler Taylor and Leonard Bernstein. The occasion offered an all-too-rare sharing of project and purpose, the spiritual and the symphonic.
Presented in the shadow of a damning U.S. Justice Department report on abuses by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department against Black citizens, the concert was as much challenge as entertainment. As narrator (and Louisville Metro District 4 Councilman) Jecorey Arthur declaimed texts by James Baldwin amid Thompson’s music – the weight of recent history was unmistakable.
“I was trying to create a musical picture very similar to the ones we saw on our television sets,” Thompson told listeners that evening, referencing the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection in which viewers witnessed “the Confederate flag in the U.S. capitol for the first time ever.” His score and Baldwin’s language considered “what is the role of justice; what is equality?”
Following the performance of Taylor’s aurally fascinating “Revisions” – a product of the LO’s conspicuously innovative Creators Corps residency initiative – it was on to the evening’s musical anchor: Bernstein’s 1949 Symphony No. 2, titled “The Age of Anxiety” after W.H. Auden’s 1948 book-length poem about four disaffected souls in World War Two-era New York City, with pianist Sebastian Chang on hand as keyboard partner.
Bernstein felt a kinship with Black Americans – in 1970 he hosted a gathering at his Manhattan apartment to raise funds for the Black Panthers, an event Tom Wolfe famously skewered in a New York Magazine article titled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” Politics and alleged posturing notwithstanding, Bernstein had genuine sympathy for disaffected humanity.
“He was a true activist,” Abrams told his listeners. “He marched himself. He was the person who integrated the New York Philharmonic.”
Not to mention a person with an eclectic, spiritual restlessness reflected in much of his music.
On the preceding Saturday (March 4), Abrams had conducted the LO in Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” titled after the Jewish prayer praising God that is also typically recited on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. He returned to that theme in remarks to the audience before performing “The Age of Anxiety.”
“The Kaddish asks, ‘How can you believe, how can you believe in God, how can you have faith and have some form of spirituality when confronted with a world that is so deeply unjust?”
Journeys of Faith, now in the second year of a four-year commitment funded largely by the Jewish Heritage Fund, acknowledges how Black and Jewish histories are each bound up in catastrophe.
“Both of our communities have dealt with unthinkable tragedy,” Abrams said. So “how do we maintain a sense of identity, a sense of humanity, and a sense of believing in something beyond. That’s what this piece asks.”
Assumptions carry potential perils, in and out of the concert hall. “Despite my name, which doesn’t sound very Jewish,” orchestra CEO Graham Parker remarked during a post-performance reception, “I am Jewish. “Also, my husband and I have two Black kids – we adopted (them) at birth. So raising two Black children in a Jewish household, this journey is very personal to me – very, very personal. I have seen what it’s like for my son to experience racism in Israel. I’ve seen what it’s like for my daughter to navigate her way through being a young Jew. I’ve seen the challenge of that, and I’ve seen the beauty of it, too.”
Journeys of Faith has been an exemplary collaboration, Parker said. He cited participation by the Jewish Heritage Fund under president Jeff Polson, the Trager Family JCC, and the Jewish Community Relations Council directed by Matt Golden, who acted as the ultimate middleman in pulling the project together.
“We’re going to do this again next year,” Parker promised, “and we’re going to make it bigger and better.”
Meanwhile, Saturday’s concert proved an ideal, mutual energizer. “It was so powerful,” Cantor Sharon Hordes of Keneseth Israel Congregation said afterward. “I felt it in a visceral way – it took me to all kinds of places.”
Her KI colleague, Rabbi Ben Freed, acknowledged that he was far from the world’s greatest expert on classical music. Still, he appreciated “having had the chance to do the learning and the interaction and the connections leading to these pieces that made them, at least to me, so much more meaningful and impactful.”
Asked what might come next in KI’s partnership with Burnette Ave. Baptist Church, Freed answered that initially “we’re going to get all of our people together to do a kind of reflection. And then my hope is that we’ll continue getting to know each other, and continue to learn from each other. It doesn’t matter where it leads us, because that’s the whole point of relationships: to connect.”
Tina Hillman, a congregant from Spirit Filled New Life Ministries Church, lauded those kinds of opportunities for Jews and Blacks to join in a common purpose.
“It means that I get to mingle with other people and learn about their culture,” she said. And her reaction to the music, especially Thompson’s piece? “It was awesome – absolutely awesome,” Hillman declared. “It had my heart beating because it was so dramatic.”
Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Temple Shalom echoed a desire for forward progress. “I’m going to meet with Bishop (Steven) Kelsey” of New Life “to review what people wrote, to get a sense of what they’re interested in. We already have liaisons from each congregation that are willing to take the next steps to organize some of the things we come up with.”
Those could include more “social things,” Chottiner said. “It’s going to be more discussions, some community service/social action programs. It could be someone wanting to learn about Judaism. It’s open ended. Bonds have been made, and we’re very grateful for that.”