Shircago was featured in the Chicago Tribune! Read on:
Barbershop blends with sacred songs ; Chicago a cappella group makes liturgical chants swing, with plenty of be-bop tunes thrown in
[Chicago Final Edition]
Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill.
Author: Ron Grossman, Tribune staff reporter
Date: Oct 22, 2004
Start Page: 10
In a recording studio above a Clark Street storefront, the a cappella group Shircago was singing its way through Jewish musical history--with heart and soul, plus an occasional "sha-boom, sha- boom."
Halfway through the line "my Rock and my Redeemer," a staple of the synagogue service, the quartet looked to the control booth in frustration. It was one of those sessions when if the electronics aren't temperamental, a vocalist goes off tempo or hits a false note.
Between takes of the recording sessions, the singers talked about the mission of their group, whose name plays on the city of its birth and shir, Hebrew for "song."
Compared with the cantor who traditionally leads a congregation in prayer, Shircago's liturgical approach is more accessible, said Loren Shevitz, who sings bass-baritone.
On some arrangements, the group sounds like a barbershop quartet. On others, the male singers imitate the sound of high-hat cymbals, a clarinet and a string bass being plucked to a syncopated beat.
Their repertoire also encompasses non-liturgical songs, including parodies of popular music. From their voices, Elvis Presley's lyric "I'm all shook up" becomes "I'm all ferklempt" (Yiddish for, roughly, overwhelmed).
"Judaism can't be stopped in time," said Shevitz. "We can't live in a musical shtetl."
When Shevitz was at the University of Chicago a few years ago, a cappella singing was enjoying a renaissance on college campuses. Students were blending traditional multipart harmonies with doo-wop rhythms.
At Columbia University, Jewish students who didn't want to perform on the Sabbath split off from a secular singing organization to form a Jewish one, said Jordan Gorfinkel, who founded Beat'achon in 1991 as the first professional Jewish a cappella group. He estimated that there are more than three dozen such groups in the U.S. and abroad.
At the U. of C., Shevitz found other students with twin loves: music and Jewish culture. Upon leaving campus, he formed Shircago to work the local synagogue, wedding and bar-and-bat mitzvah circuit. So far, neither he nor the others can afford to give up their day jobs.
Shevitz works for a Jewish communal organization, as does soprano Rebecca Gruenspan. Baritone Dan Appelbaum is director of nuclear medicine at the U. of C. Only coloratura soprano Vicky Glikin draws a paycheck for her musical passion. She is a cantorial soloist--a kind of apprentice prayer leader--at a north suburban congregation.
But for all of them, the reward of a cappella singing transcends monetary concerns.
"Music makes me feel my prayers," Gruenspan said. "It helps us make a connection with our spiritual selves."
She is not alone in that feeling, said Henry Rosenblum, head of the cantorial program at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
"There has been a whole explosion of contemporary music in the Jewish community," Rosenblum said. "Across the denominations, congregational singing has taken off."
Shevitz's father, a doctor by day, writes music for a suburban Detroit congregation. He has set a traditional Hebrew prayer to a theme by Mozart--a work Shircago will premiere Friday at Congregation Rodfei Zedek on Chicago's South Side.
During a timeout from the recording session, Shevitz used a cell phone to ask his father: "Dad, what tempo do you want?"
On some arrangements, Glikin's part soars above the others, hitting high notes that eerily lend her voice the pure tones of a boy soprano. She was a securities analyst before turning to liturgical music--a switch that completed a religious cycle for her family.
She was born in Kiev, Ukraine, where her forebears were Orthodox Jews. But after the Russian Revolution, religion became politically incorrect, and the family's connection to its heritage was almost broken by the time it immigrated to Chicago in 1992.
Glikin said that when her great-grandmother hears her singing, it seems to take the 93-year-old woman back to childhood. When Glikin recently gave birth, her great-grandmother baked a strudel to be served at the bris, the ritual circumcision of a Jewish boy.
"She said it was the same strudel she remembered her mother making for her brother's bris," Glikin said.
Purists might object to the mixing of the sacred and secular in Shircago's performances. But Gorfinkel noted that there is a long tradition of interaction between Jewish liturgical music and secular culture. Jan Pierce and Richard Tucker had dual careers: internationally celebrated opera singers in addition to being cantors.
Gorfinkel said that some melodies used by cantors in synagogue services have roots going back to European popular songs of earlier centuries.
"I believe it's all kosher," said Gorfinkel, who doubles between singing with his a cappella group and serving as a cantor on the High Holy Days for a congregation in New York.
During a pause to clean up another glitch during Shircago's recording session, Glikin noted that whatever the source of a piece of music, getting an audience into the act is the critical factor.
She looked around the studio: a dimly lighted room, barely furnished save for microphones and sound-absorbing materials. The quartet members were the only ones there.
"There's no kavanah," she said, using a term for the mindset, the emotional concentration, a person of faith should bring to prayer. "In a synagogue setting, with a community of people, these same songs become a conversation with God."
Shircago will perform during services at 6 p.m. Friday at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, 5200 S. Hyde Park Blvd. Call 773-752- 2770.
Shircago has been selected for the first-ever Best of Jewish A Cappella album. Our recording of "Hiney Ba Hashalom" is featured on the Chai Track (#18)!
A tree has been planted in Israel in our honor!
Read a testimonial from a happy client:
I hired Shircago to perform at a party for my mother's 70th birthday. I had never heard them perform, but I had read a glowing article about them in the Chicago Tribune. The review was right. Each singer brought a special talent and style to Shircago. Their voices were pure and beautiful. Many songs brought tears to our guests eyes as they brought back special memories. Shircago was a pleasure to work with in every way. I look forward to hiring them again in the near future. As people, they are as wonderful as the music they perform. I forgot my camera and they took pictures at the party for me and my family. I will never forget this party and credit Shircago for making this day so memorable for my mother, our family and our friends.