On March 26, the Nashville Symphony in partnership with the Tennessee Holocaust Commission presented Voices of Hope, the Second Annual Schermerhorn Invitational Choral Festival. This special, free education and community event was designed and presented this year as part of Violins of Hope Nashville.
Voices of Hope convened student choirs from local public schools, private schools and religious organizations under the direction of Dr. Tamara Freeman, an internationally acknowledged Holocaust ethnomusicologist. Dr. Freeman worked with each choir and director individually in the weeks and months leading up to the event. All of this preparation culminated in the festival: a day of rehearsals and a free performance open to the public.
Participating choirs included:
- Akiva School
- Antioch High School
- Choral Arts Link (MET Singers)
- East Nashville Magnet High School
- Hillsboro High School
- Hillwood High School
- Creswell Middle School of the Arts
In addition to the choirs, the festival also included student instrumentalists from Akiva School, and the ballet studio from Nashville School of the Arts under the direction of Debra Perry. The festival was accompanied on piano and organ by Nick Bergen.
Like much of the programming being held this spring around our city for the Violins of Hope project, planning for Voices of Hope began a year ago. At the beginning of April 2017, I was introduced to Danielle Kahane-Kaminsky, Executive Director of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, and we met several times last spring and summer to discuss how the symphony and the holocaust commission might collaborate to create programming that would directly involve Nashville youth in a dynamic and memorable way. Danielle had worked with Dr. Freeman before, and we soon landed on the idea of dedicating our second Schermerhorn Invitational Choral Festival to this project, and asking her to direct it. We found a date, contacted Dr. Freeman – who was enthusiastic – and we were off!
Over the summer and fall of 2017, Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement staff worked to elicit interest from local choir directors and confirm participation in the festival, and once the roster was complete Dr. Freeman communicated remotely via technology to develop the program with participating directors and their students.
Each choir performed a work individually during the performance, and also prepared several pieces that were sung by all choirs combined at points during the performance. The entire concert was sung in Yiddish! One of the highlights of the concert was the mass choir performance of Eytz Chaim (Tree of Life), an original work by Jonathan Leshnoff , whose Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony especially for performance and recording on the Violins of Hope during the performances that launched the Violins of Hope residency in Nashville on the weekend preceding Voice of Hope. Mr. Leshnoff prepared Eytz Chaim especially for Voices of Hope, and the festival performance was the song’s world premiere.
The voices of these young people were uplifting and healing for everyone present. The incredible dedication and hard work that it took to learn these songs in Yiddish was awe inspiring. This concert was a true example of arts education in action. Through performance these young people not only learned about this history but they gave voice to the history educating others. As Maya Angelou says, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.~ Danielle Kahane-KaminskyExecutive DirectorTennessee Holocaust Commission
Finally, the day of the performance arrived. Dancers from NSA arrived in the morning, as did Dr. Freeman and accompanist Nick Bergen. Last minute preparations by all parties brought everything in place for rehearsals to begin shortly after noon, and all choirs, musicians, and dancers assembled on the stage for several hours of enthralling rehearsals.
I spent most of my teaching career as a choir director and am a lifelong aficionado – as a singer in my own childhood, and later as teacher, director, and parent – of children’s choral music. Yet I was struck anew that afternoon by the beauty of the sound our Voices of Hope festival choir made when they began to rehearse Ani Manin, and had to sit down and just take it in for a few minutes. There is nothing to compare to the sound of children singing beautiful music well, and on that day, in our musical home, the impression was beautiful and moving indeed.
The afternoon of rehearsals passed quickly and soon the choirs left the stage to eat, change into concert attire, and rest briefly before the performance began. Over a thousand people filled the hall for our Second Annual Schermerhorn Invitational Choral Festival, the choirs filed onstage, and the event unfolded.
The Voices of Hope performers transformed Laura Turner Hall at Schermerhorn Symphony Center into a haven of social justice through their evocative interpretations of archival songs of the Holocaust ghettos and concentration camps, all sung in their original Yiddish. The 250 young students astounded the audience with their mature approach to bringing alive the history and the lessons of humankind’s worst genocide, through their exquisite and heart-felt musicianship and dancing.
I am proud to have been the artistic director and conductor for this historic Festival and Concert. The angelic voices, artful choreography, and strong work ethic of these children are emblazoned in my heart. Many thanks to Walter Bitner, Kristen Freeman, the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, and the Nashville Symphony staff, for their belief in the power of students to lead the way toward a better world.~ Dr. Tamara Freeman