Rejoicing in the Law

October 11, 2012, 11:30 AM · Last Sunday I did a performance that had been a long time coming. I played "Simchas Torah" by Ernest Bloch, in church for the offertory. I first heard of the piece about 4 years ago, from my violin teacher, who mentioned that she'd had a high-school-age student perform it in a recital, and he'd "done a terrific job." I've always liked Bloch, and so I thought I would give it a try. I downloaded a Joshua Bell version from iTunes and bought the sheet music, and then took it to a lesson.

That first lesson was long enough ago that I don't remember it too well. I do remember thinking, gee, if a high school student could play this in recital, why not me? The answer to that became clear pretty quickly. Climbing up there on the E string? Lots of fingered octaves? Harmonics galore? Mmmm, double stops! And, by the way, what key is this piece in? It starts out looking and sounding like a relatively straightforward A-major but, um, no. Key changes. Modulations. There went my simple plan for practicing one scale a week and matching it to the piece I'm playing. I ultimately set Simchas Torah aside, in favor of the 4th movement of the Franck Sonata.

But, fast forward a few years, and the Bloch is still there, on my iPod and on the music shelf, calling me. It reminds me of birds, somehow. Birds singing, birds flying, birds hopping on branches, getting ready to fly south for the winter. It's tonal without being trite or tired. It's also modern without losing any sense of melody and musical line. It's not really like any other violin piece I've heard before. I have a history of avoiding high notes--at one point I felt so anti-E string that I bought a viola and learned to play it--but this piece makes me *want* to play the high notes. The birds need them.

So I decided to do a little reading about the holiday itself, also called "Simchat Torah." Unlike Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and even Sukkot which immediately precedes it, Simchat Torah has not made many inroads into non-Jewish US consciousness. This movement is even possibly the least well-known movement of the whole musical suite, "Baal Shem, Three Pictures of Hassidic Life." (I think the best-known one is "Ningun," at least I'd heard that one before and it has the most YouTube videos). I also thought it might help to find out when Simchat Torah takes place. Perhaps that would be a good time for the performance. It turned out that Simchat Torah immediately follows the festival of Sukkot. It is part of an independent holiday called Shemini Atzeret, and took place this year on Oct 8, which is why I played last Sunday. "Simchat Torah" itself means "Rejoicing in the Law" and marks the conclusion--and restart--of the annual Torah-reading cycle. It is celebrated with great rejoicing, including marching and dancing with Torah scrolls.

There were a couple of things I tried before this performance that I'd never done before, but which were helpful and which I'll probably do again. The first was to make a recording and post it, which I did here: Desensitizing Myself. This helped in two major ways: 1. It got me to think in performance mode before the actual performance. I had to play it through without stopping, and I could feel "eyes" on me and get used to the feeling, before there were real eyes. and 2. I got helpful comments. The comments reinforced my notion that I needed to move beyond getting the notes, into letting go and thinking of the piece in a more musical way.

The second thing I did in performance that was new was to not only write in pauses, but plan for and practice some sort of action during the pauses that would keep me paused. For example, there is a comma printed in the sheet music after a climactic moment, after a long, high harmonic and before the opening theme is reasserted. In the weeks and months leading up to the performance I did all kinds of things to get that pause right: I circled the comma with a pencil; I drew in some railroad tracks. My teacher, helpfully, suggested to "think of a breath. Breathe!" None of this really made any difference. Truth be told, voice and singing metaphors have never really done much for me. I still felt the uncomfortable "eyes" on me during the pause, wanted it to be over, and barreled with relief right back into the main theme.

Except for the time my shoulder rest felt like it was falling off and I had to adjust my chin and shoulder a little bit before starting again. That pause was the right length. Hmm. What if I just planned to make a little chin and shoulder adjustment there, every time, no matter what? I mentioned this to my teacher and she said that yes, players will do that sometimes. And it even fits in with the idea of preparation: with the pause, you are preparing the audience to listen to what comes next, but you are also preparing yourself to play. Whatever was behind it, it worked. The pause was right.

I have to admit, marching and dancing are not the first thing that comes to my mind when listening to this piece. But I do feel a sense of both completion and beginning, with the performance. I feel as if I've come a long way since I first dug my violin out of the back of the closet almost 6 years ago. This performance had its flaws, as they all do, but it was marked by much less anxiety than I used to feel before playing anything solo, and a new appreciation for and comfort with the full range of pitches that the violin is capable of. The pianist who accompanied me, one of the music directors at church, is also a music professor, and it was a pleasure to be talking to him in rehearsal about interpretation, as a fellow musician rather than as a greenhorn student. That idea, moving beyond the notes into finding an interpretation, is the area where I feel I'm just beginning. Finally beginning.


October 11, 2012 at 10:08 PM · Karen - what a wonderful blog and experience. I am glad it went so well, and that you told us about how you went about figuring out an interpretation. You did a very nice job of explaining the context of the piece. I love the Bloch Baal Shem pieces and studied Simchat Torah some years ago. Isaac Stern made an excellent recording, which I have. I hope you will perform and listen to other pieces by Bloch. I think he is very good and underplayed/under-rated composer.

October 12, 2012 at 12:36 AM · Dear Karen,

Thank you for sharing your experiences! It sounds wonderful all around!

"Rejoicing in the Law" is a correct literal translation but it doesn't completely capture the spirit of the holiday. While it is true that the holiday is a celebration of G-d giving the Torah, I think that Torah translated as "Law" is too one-sided. The reason I mention this is because the Old Testament (or the Torah) is so much more than just laws - As you undoubtedly know, there are great stories and "laws of the heart" in the Torah as well. Really, the translation should just be "Rejoicing in (or with) the Torah".

You know, I have a special affinity with the Bloch Baal Shem Suite. The town of my ancestors is Czestochowa, Poland, once home to a thriving Jewish population before WWII. In fact, it was 30% Jewish just before the mass extermination.

A few years ago, I played the Suite as a soloist with the Philharmonia Czestochowa in a joint collaboration with the World Society of Czestochowa Jews and their Descendants. To make this concert even more meaningful, the concert hall is on the exact same location of where one of the city's largest synagogues was. You can still see ruins in the basement.

Enjoy the experience of playing this deeply meaningful piece!

October 12, 2012 at 01:26 AM · If you ever pick up the viola again, try his Suite Hebraique. Great stuff.

Congrats on your performance!

October 12, 2012 at 03:08 PM · @Daniel, I was definitely thinking of a broader interpretation of the "Law." Structure and rules actually appeal to me quite a bit, in the sense that I think that when engaged thoughtfully they enable creativity rather than stifle it. I think of Shakespeare's sonnets, or sonata-allegro form in music: a strict form, and beauty within. Liturgical cycles and seasons have always had a great deal of resonance for me as well. I don't really know if Bloch was getting at a similar idea with this piece, or not, but I like to think so ;-)

October 12, 2012 at 03:13 PM · @Mendy, I remember your performance a few years ago. Lovely! At this point I don't think my viola skills are up to it, but that's what I thought about my violin skills a few years ago.

@Tom, thanks! I have to check out Isaac Stern's performance, I haven't heard that one. I found several recordings on YouTube but I actually didn't like many of them, except for the Axel Strauss version I posted on the previous blog. And Joshua Bell's version (not on YouTube) is really good. I thought most of the YouTubers took it, especially the opening theme, too fast. I never quite got my tempo up to YouTube speed but my teacher and my accompanist both thought that was just fine--the slightly more relaxed tempo allowed you to hear and savor the theme and bring out the triplets.

October 12, 2012 at 05:24 PM · Karen - I have not heard any versions other than Stern. I tend to trust his interpretation because he comes from a generation of Jewish violinists which would have been much closer to the cultural context than probably any of the current crop. I agree with your insight that it needs to be slow enough to savor, although, if I recall correctly, there is significant dancing on Simchat Torah, so interpretation should also reflect that aspect.

October 13, 2012 at 10:32 AM · Congrats Karen - thats a heck of an achievement!


October 15, 2012 at 03:44 PM · Congrats, Karen... and great post.

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