A student recital I recently attended has really stayed with me. Such performances are music-school requirements, and to complete them successfully is a big relief for the performers, I’m sure. But there was a sense of exultation in the room after the senior recital of Rollin Simmons, a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and that feeling has continued to buoy up my spirits ever since.
First, I was awed by all that Rollin had learned. A cantorial degree from Hebrew Union is a five-year program, including a required year of study in Israel. A cantor must be prepared to walk into just about any congregation with all the liturgical music ready to go; that big, big catalog is expanding in reform congregations. Additionally, as a cantor from a generation before Rollin told me, the study program is more rigorous today because cantors have more pastoral duties now and have to learn a lot of what the rabbi knows.
I also deeply appreciated the spirit Rollin brought in creating her recital. Her theme was the experience we all share on a journey of faith, and she illustrated it with video clips from interviews with faculty and staff of the school. From the perspectives of their diverse backgrounds, they spoke of their own spiritual seeking, struggling, learning, accepting and giving thanks.
Reflecting those themes, Rollin presented works by classical composers, traditional songs in Hebrew and Yiddish and even an American Spiritual. Rollin’s communal embrace extended to the performances, too. She was a soloist, of course, but also joined in duet, quartet and choral singing and invited the audience to sing, too.
The applause and cheers that erupted at the program’s conclusion weren’t just for Rollin’s achievement. They were a celebration of the spirit she created by bringing people together to share their stories and make music together. I send congratulations to Rollin and my thanks, too, for an incredibly uplifting experience that remains with me weeks later.
What was that experience, exactly? The following words by Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, selected by Rollin for the front page of her recital program, say it best:
“Alone, I cannot lift my voice in song.
Then you come near and sing with me.
Our prayers fuse and a new voice soars.
Our bond is beyond voice and voice.
Our bond is one of spirit and spirit.”