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Arizona Repertory Singers to perform Hanukkah premiere, ‘King David’ oratorio

The Arizona Repertory Singers will perform the world premiere of ‘Festival of Lights’ next month. (David Sanders)

The Arizona Repertory Singers will feature several pieces of Jewish music during its 2017-2018 season. In its winter concert series, the 47-member ensemble directed by Elliot Jones, Ph.D., will perform the world premiere of “Festival of Lights” by New York composer Karen Siegel, as well as the Ladino Hanukkah song, “Ocho Kandelikas.” In the spring, the choir will present two performances of Arthur Honegger’s “King David” oratorio, last performed in Tucson in 1954.

Rick Sack, a member of the choir since 2013, is thrilled that under Jones, now in his second year as music director, ARS is exploring a more culturally diverse repertoire.

Sack, whose education included a stint as a musical theatre major at the University of Arizona, is a Realtor who moved to Tucson from Chicago in 1993.

He became a member of Congregation Ner Tamid after attending a single service that moved him to tears, “basically because of Karla Ember’s voice and musical interpretation of our prayers.”

He joined Ember’s choir at Ner Tamid and took voice lessons with her. Eventually she encouraged him to apply for the position of cantorial soloist at Congregation Chaverim, where he served several years, becoming a member.

When Ember was killed in 2010, dying after a brutal attack by a former boyfriend that stunned the Jewish community, “I became unaffiliated,” he says.

Sack had also sung with the Sons of Orpheus, a men’s choir, for several years. It was while receiving physical therapy for shoulder pain that he learned about ARS, as he and the therapist chatted about their hobbies. The therapist, Carolyn Adler, “turned out to be one of the finest sopranos I’d ever heard, singing with the Arizona Repertory Singers.”

Since being accepted into ARS, “I’ve just been madly in love with this choir,” says Sack, vice president of the ARS board of directors, adding that this is the perfect year to expand its reach in the Jewish community.

Jones acknowledges that when it comes to choral music in December, most people think of Christmas music, although that can be secular rather than sacred.

“I don’t really want to place emphasis on any particular religion or denomination — but it just so happened that I wanted a good, rhythmic, opening number for this concert and one thing I’ve done before is ‘Ocho Kandelikas,’” Jones says. “It’s in the Ladino dialect, from Sephardic Spanish, and it just makes the most crowd-pleasing and singer-pleasing opening number for a concert.”

Under the rubric “Heaven Full of Stars,” the concert also will include “Ave Maria, Virgo Serena” by Josquin des Prez and “Stars” by Eriks Esenvalds, which calls for choristers to play tuned wine glasses as they sing, creating an unusual aural effect.

As for “Festival of Lights,” Jones says that when composers send him their music, he’s often underwhelmed, but when he looked at Siegel’s composition, he said, “Oh, this is something we need to do! There’s something about it that’s very special, very beautiful — the singers will say it is very difficult but it is worth the trouble and it’s going to be a wonderful world premiere.”

Jones is equally excited about the two April performances of “King David,” with one scheduled for Catalina United Methodist Church and the other at Temple Emanu-El.

He conducted “King David” for the first time in 2011 in Missouri. “I’m so in love with piece I’m looking forward to doing it again.”

The oratorio, written in 1921, features a range of musical styles including Gregorian chant, early 20th century modernist dissonance and jazz. Along with the offstage voice of the Witch of Endor, the ARS production will include other theatrical elements, says Jones.

“For example, the first time you hear King David sing, he’s a boy soprano, and then very quickly he develops into an adult tenor. At the end of the piece … I have the boy King David enter and the adult King David stand and look at each other before they look out over the city and it is just a beautiful moment.”

Ken Rosenblatt, a member of Temple Emanu-El, also sings with ARS and is president of its board. He is particularly proud of the group’s work with Act One, which provides arts experiences for underserved children.

“Each year we have two concerts [for Act One] and we introduce people who have not been able to hear fine choral music before, so from my perspective, this choir not only produces glorious music, but also in our small way, Rick and I and the rest of the choir, and Elliot, are doing a little tikkun olam (repair of the world),” says Rosenblatt. “We’re trying to do our part to serve the community and change the world.”

Opening night for the December concerts is Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m. at Christ the King Episcopal Church, 2800 W. Ina Road, with performances at three other Tucson churches on Dec. 10, 15, and 17. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door. Group discounts are available. For complete details and tickets, visit arsingers.org or call 792-8141.

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