The Jerusalem Post
Going out with voices held high
The Ramatayim Men’s Choir prepares for its grand finale after 26 years
All good things come to an end, so they say. In the case of the Richard Shavei-Tzion and the Ramatayim Men’s Choir, Jerusalem, (RMC) their “good thing” will disappear into the sunset on June 23. (8 p.m.) The 40-strong vocal ensemble will gather on the stage of the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theater, for a grand finale as the choristers, with Shavei-Tzion conducting, bow out after a 26-year journey that has taken them up and down the country and even overseas.
They have enjoyed popular synergies with leading cantors, such as Chaim Adler, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, Naftali Herstik and IDF Cantor Shai Abramson, and also intriguing hookups with artists from other disciplines, including veteran rocker Shlomo Gronich who has also done his fair share of choral-oriented projects over the years.
The June 23 concert promises to be a rousing and emotive occasion for all concerned. “Yes it is sad,” says Shavei-Tzion who founded the ensemble and has served as its artistic director, composer and conductor throughout.
The Jerusalem Theater event will also be a far cry from the choir’s humble and altruistic beginnings. “We started out, just as a little chug (cultural activity) that a friend of mine (Rafi Barnett) decided to put together in the living room of my family home, in Ramot,” recalls the South African-born sexagenarian. “We just wanted to sing songs we remembered singing, as kids, in the shul (synagogue) choirs.” Shavei-Tzion’s own childhood choral debut took place at the Gardens Shul in Cape Town, when he was just 10. “It is the mother shul of South Africa. It is beautiful.” It was love at first liturgical trill. “I immediately developed a passion for this music,” he says, over half a century on. “After moving to Johannesburg, the shul there decided to start up a youth choir and 18-year old Shavei-Tzion duly landed the choirmaster slot. And the rest is conducting, composing, arranging, directing, choral history and all without the benefit of even rudimentary music-reading skills.
News of the cozy get-together began to spread. “Other Anglo-Saxons (English-speaking immigrants) in the neighborhood began to hear about this activity and they joined, and then we were 10 guys.”
They also enlisted the considerable support of local resident Aviva Stanislawski,
a music academic, who played the piano and who has provided the choir with instrumental accompaniment across its lengthy lifetime.
And all this was long before anyone had seriously considered the advent of Facebook or other social media channels of communication. And, to paraphrase a recurring divine reference from the first six days of biblical terra firma, they saw that it was good.
The songster gang’s initial public airing was facilitated by this very media outlet. “Then we got a gig to sing at The Jerusalem Post children charity fund. I think it was called the Toy Fund.” Mea culpa. “The Jerusalem Post, they are the ones that are responsible for this whole thing [of the choir],” Shavei-Tzion laughs.
However, the spirit may have been willing but the choir needed a little fleshing out. “I remember we had to find a few other ensembles, to perform with,” the choirmaster continues. “Our entire repertoire consisted of five songs. So we did our 15 minutes and they did their thing.” It must have been nothing short of amazing, to make the transition from living room fun to appearing on stage for an actual audience. It was a pretty swanky venue too. “It was in the Bible Lands Museum auditorium.”
The snowball momentum was well and truly in gear. “Men who had sung in similar choirs began to hear about us, and then Israelis joined in, and we started to get invitations for more gigs.”
Over the years the RMC has predominantly performed renditions of liturgical scores but has not been averse to slipping in the odd secular number here and there. “I grew up with the music of the sixties and seventies, and I still love it. My kids sing Simon and Garfunkel songs and, in fact, one of the numbers we are going to be singing in our final concert is ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ That is one of my iconic favorite songs, and we have been doing it for quite a while.”
NEXT WEEK’S reading of the aforementioned Simon and Garfunkel staple will feature stellar baritone Colin Shachat, who also does his fair share of operatic and cantorial deliveries. “I heard him singing that song with an orchestra around five to six years ago and I said, OK, Colin we’re doing this,” Shavei-Tzion explains.
The choir made a habit of spreading out musically during the course of the last quarter of a century-plus. “For us, it started off only with liturgical music – western European choral music and eastern European hazanut (cantorial music). And possibly because I’m also into all sorts of other music, we went into Broadway musicals, opera, a lot of Israeli music, hassidic music.”
That brought the choir into a fruitful collaboration with one of the country’s most respected pop-rock artists. “One of Shlomo Gronich’s albums, for example, is called ‘Masa El Hamekorot (Journey to the Sources).’ He had this project where he’d put together arrangements and compositions from the Jewish texts.” That suited Shavei-Tzion and the rest of the choir down to the ground. “We were invited to sing with him once, and we did a few numbers from the album, and it worked so well that we created a whole series of performances that we had with him.”
Another member of the upper echelons of the country’s rock hierarchy also came into the RMC’s field of operations. “We worked with pianist-vocalist Rami Kleinstein. He’s so melodic and wonderful. And we’ve done a lot of hassidic things, like with the Razel brothers (Yonatan and Aaron), and a lot of Carlebach stuff, and Israeli material, like songs by Naomi Shemer.”
Sounds like it’s been a roller-coaster ride for Shavei-Tzion and his singing cohorts, with over 250 shows, and many emotive experiences on stage, under their collective belt to date. “Two years ago, we were singing with (IDF chief cantor) Shai Abramson at the Jerusalem Theatre. A few months before the show he asked us to sing ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. I put together an arrangement for the choir – by now I am reading and writing music. Once the Ramatayim choir really got going I realized this was a different league altogether,” Shavei-Tzion laughs.
Everything was set for the Jerusalem Theatre concert when momentous events intervened and Abramson was called away for an important mission of mercy, not long before the show was due to start. “The night before the concert the government made an announcement that they’d found the remains of Zechariah Baumel,” Shavei-Tzion recalls. Sgt. Zachary Baumel was one of three IDF soldiers missing in action following the battle of Sultan Yaakov in southern Lebanon in 1982. “They announced that his remains were being returned to Israel and his funeral was due to take place at 8 o’clock on the evening of the concert.” Abramson was called upon to officiate at the funeral, and it was touch and go whether or not he would make it back to the Jerusalem Theatre in time.
THE CONCERT logistics were rearranged in order to accommodate the change in Abramson’s schedule, with the hope that it would all work out. “We did ‘Bring Him Home’ later in the program, and we were in the middle of doing it when Shai ran onto the stage. He addressed the audience and told them that he had just come from the funeral of Zechariah Baumel, who has been returned to Israel after 37 years. They brought him home. And then we sang ‘Bring Him Home.’ That was so moving for all of us.”
So, why pack it all in now? It is, apparently, a matter of professional integrity. “I wouldn’t say our performances have deteriorated, but I wouldn’t want us to go on for too long,” he notes. “There are artists who go past their sell-by date, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to us. I think it is better that people remember us the way we’d like them to.”
Considering the RMC’s ongoing popularity – due to the brisk ticket sales the concert had to be relocated from the Rebecca Crown Auditorium to the much larger Henry Crown Hall – there is every chance that will be the case, and the choir will retain a soft spot in the memories of thousands of music lovers around the country and across the world.