Music Worth Remembering

November 26, 2013
BY Simone Ellin

“Usually, people associate choral singing with Christianity,” said Isaiah Cox, founder of the all-male a cappella ensemble Who Knows 5. “But there is a long tradition of Jewish sacred choral music beginning in the 17th century.”

In celebration of Chanukah, Who Knows 5 will present a concert at Etz Chaim: The Center For Jewish Living and Learning (3702 Fords Lane, Baltimore) on Sunday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m.

Cox sang with a choir that performed Jewish sacred choral music when he lived in England for 10 years.

“It was a very prestigious choir that performed on TV, for members of the royal family and at state events, in addition to weddings,” he said.

When Cox moved to Baltimore about nine years ago, he was hoping to find a similar musical opportunity. Eventually, he discovered Baltimore’s Jewish Music Heritage Project (JMHP) and met its founder, Cantor Sholom Kalib. The JMHP was dedicated to the performance and archival recording of sacred Jewish music. Cox sang with the JMHP until it stopped performing in 2007. The group has continued its mission to document, catalog and disseminate sacred Eastern European music.

“When the JMHP performances ended, we decided to form our own ensemble that sang more challenging music and was much smaller than the JMHP choir. Because we are smaller [five vocalists now and no more than six in the past], the experience for audiences is more intimate,” Cox said.

The music of Who Knows 5 is all vocal, although Cox, who is the group’s second tenor, joked that Gavriel Lewin, first tenor, also “plays a mean pitch pipe.”

The other ensemble members are baritones Dave Weintraub and Yehuda Mond and bass Dr. Menachem Miller.

Lewin said they are hoping to bring traditional Jewish music to the masses.

“Jewish music today is mostly pop or maybe Shlomo Carlebach,” he said. “When I came into this group, I knew nothing about this [traditional sacred] music. This is the oldest written Jewish music. … It touches me in my bones. You can feel that it is part of our Judaism. This was the music our great-great-grandparents listened to,” he said.

Cox, who said the ensemble will perform about 18 pieces by composers that include Louis Lewandowski, Yossele Rosenblatt, Salamone Rossi, Zavel Zilberts, Israel Lazarus Mombach, Benedetto Marcello, G.F. Handel and Isaac Heymann, noted, “It’s the ultimate retro music.”

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