One of the unexpected highlights of my graduate training at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music was the study of sonata form. As a young voice major, far more versed in Paul Simon’s Graceland than I was in Mozart’s 30th Symphony, I was, to say the least, not always overjoyed with my coursework in “Graduate Theory and Analysis.” But in studying Charles Rosen’s seminal work on the subject of sonata form, I found it fascinating that the emotions one feels when listening to music could actually be understood, and given greater meaning, through studying the large-scale musical forms. When I went on to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, this approach would greatly enhance my ability to understand the Jewish liturgy as connected spiritual system, rather than merely a random collection of unrelated prayers.
I won’t get into every detail of sonata form in this small space, but the basic premise is that the music starts out as a presentation of two competing musical ideas, or themes, in two different keys. In between the first theme and the second theme is a transition (what is called a bridge in pop music) that connects the two themes, and the two different keys. Next, there is a second section, called the development, where the ideas are, more or less, broken apart into their smaller component parts, and then repackaged in various ways. This is often a chaotic process, in which there is considerable tension, and also one in which some interesting possibilities are put forth. The last part of the sonata form is what’s called the recapitulation -- a new presentation of the original themes in their entirety. In this second presentation, however, the two themes appear not in two different keys (as they did the first time) but in the same key.
Notably, in between the two themes the second time around is a second transition, different from the first one, of course, since we are now imagining these two themes not in opposition to one other, but existing in the same dimension. The “job,” then, of the second transition is to facilitate a reality in which two apparently different ideas are hovering alongside one another as if they were meant to be heard together all along. This creates a very satisfying moment for the listener. In achieving this moment, it certainly helps if the composer has written two memorable, compelling themes. But what makes it all really “work,” is actually not the themes themselves, but the transitions, and how they effectively bridge the gap between one idea and another, ultimately determining whether we hear the two themes as being in two different keys or in the same key. This is where the real work and skill of a gifted composer becomes evident.
As summer fast approaches and I shift my attention from one pulpit to another, I can’t help but notice the connections between this musical form and the process of integrating new religious leadership into a community. While I am most certainly energized by the challenges of this opportunity, I am also humbled by the task. For as an ancient Midrash declares, “Kol hatchalot kashot: All beginnings are hard.” Change, no matter how exciting and full of possibility, is not easy.
Before long, our thoughts will turn to the High Holidays, which will serve in some ways, as a microcosm of this transition. Together, we will engage in a process of rediscovering what was, deciding what is to remain, and imagining what will be. Like the Israelites traveling through the wilderness, our transition may at times have moments of uncertainty and insecurity, of starts and stops, of complaints for needs not met, and demands to return to the old. Some will be reticent about moving forward. Others will want to move forward too fast.
The wilderness, though, can be a time of great creativity and of new voices being heard. What I can assure you, as I most humbly enter your community, is that your voices will indeed be heard. There will likely be moments when it seems like we are singing in different keys. You may be used to one model of what a Hazzan is and does, and my model may be different. What might have worked well in my previous congregations might not work well here. It takes time for a Hazzan to get to know a congregation and to become a true shaliach tzibbur. But I will hear you. Over time, I will become better attuned to your style and expectations, while you will get to know me and, hopefully, appreciate the gifts that I bring.
I am most certainly looking forward to getting to know you all, and to hearing your voices, both as individuals, and as a group. Temple Beth El is a gem – a truly special, and most welcoming, community. Emily, Henry, Michael and I are delighted to now call Rochester our home, and to be a part of both the tradition and a dynamic future at Temple Beth El. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention how honored I am to be following in the footsteps of such extraordinary Hazzanim as Sam Rosenbaum and Martin Leubitz. I pray that, along with Rabbi Bitran, I will be able to serve each and every one of you in your own relationship with God, and the Jewish people, and in helping to continue the work of making Temple Beth El a place of learning, inspiration, transformation, connection, acceptance, and joy.
Hazzan Randall Levin