By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN MASS. – Every year Mak’hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts performs special Chanukah concerts for the residents of JGS Lifecare’s Leavitt Family Nursing Home and nearby senior living community, Glenmeadow.
“The last couple of years we have gone to both nursing homes in one day; we call it our ‘double-header,’” said Joni Beck Brewer, president of Mak’hela and an alto in the chorus.
This year, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, performing concerts in nursing homes is obviously not possible. So the members of Mak’hela put their heads – and voices — together to create A Chanukah Present from Mak’hela, with a virtual Chanukah concert that not only the seniors will be able to watch virtually, but that will be available to Mak’hela fans everywhere on YouTube.
The concert includes guest performances by the Jewish Community of Amherst Klezmer Ensemble Workshop.
“A Chanukah Present” each of Mak’hela’s 25 members videotaped themselves and recorded the audio of themselves singing their particular parts in six songs.
The group worked with Brian Bender, a sound engineer, musician and owner of Face The Music Studio in Shutesbury, who mixed each of the Mak’hela performances together to create the virtual concert.
“We’re very excited about this concert because this is something we’ve done for several years,” Joni Brewer said. “We’re so glad that we’re going to be able to do it in some way but it took a lot. We had to learn how to do all of this different kind of work.”
Brewer said that the members of Mak’hela had stopped meeting just before Covid struck.
“Our last concert was at the JCA at the beginning of March,” she said. “I think we had maybe two rehearsals after that and then [Covid-19] started up and we had to stop. And the more we’ve learned about choral singing it’s like one of the worst things that you can do,” she said, referring to evidence that the virus could be transmitted through aerosols expelled by people singing in close proximity.
“It’s been hard because, in addition to having concerts that we’re not able to do it’s also hard for the members because, for them, it’s more than just a place where they go and sing. People have developed relationships. One woman who had just moved to the area told me we were her only friends that she had met so far, and then she couldn’t see us.”
The group stayed in touch through some zoom meetings over the past several months. Somewhere along the line the idea of a virtual Chanukah concert was pitched.
“We figured, ‘Well, we better try this first because none of us had ever done it before,” Joni said. “We thought we would just do one and see how it went and see how people responded. We didn’t even know if our members would go for this. A lot of them are older and not really [versed in the] technology.”
So as an experiment, all of the singers sang and recorded one song – “Eleh Chamda Libi.”
“It’s often the song that we come into a concert with. We process in with this very lively song,” Joni explained.
Bender mixed all of the voices together to create one solid performance.
“We had a great response,” Joni said. “And even though some people felt like it was hard to do, when they saw what it looked like, with all of us together, they were sold on it.”
A complicated process
The members of Mak’hela began to work on the recordings for the virtual concert near the beginning of October.
“To make the video, each singer had to record their voice separately in their own home,” Brewer explained. “While they’re recording that, in their headphones they’re listening to the piano or whatever the accompaniment is, so that everyone is staying on the same beat.”
Everyone also had to videotape themselves singing the songs on their smart phones.
“They needed two devices – like an iPad attached to their headphones, so they could hear the piano, and then another device to record themselves… We have people who live by themselves who have had to do it all by themselves. I’m very grateful that I’ve got this guy here,” Joni said, pointing to her husband Bruce, a Mak’hela board member, “because I think it’s hard. You’ve got to start recording with this one and then start that one. And you don’t want to be looking at your music the whole time. It gets complicated.”
“It’s been a challenge,” agreed Elaine “Lainie” Broad Ginsberg, Mak’hela’s music director and conductor.
But Ginsberg has also helped to make the process a bit easier with her own musical expertise, said Brian Bender.
“The first thing I get from Lainie is a piano accompaniment track,” he explained. “She records herself playing the piano…She then also sings all of the separate choir parts and records each one as a reference for the singers. I then mix them together and generate new videos — piano plus soprano, piano plus alto, piano plus tenor and piano plus bass — and then I do one that is piano with all of the parts. She then sends them out to the appropriate people as a reference, so everyone has what they need.”
After the singers complete their performances, Ginsberg okays the videos and audio and sends them to Bender. As they “trickle in,” he mixes them all to create the video.
In addition to several other important parts of the process, Bender synchs the recordings all up time-wise, adjusts everyone’s volume, and resizes the videos so that everyone’s video tile is consistent and fit on one screen. He is also able to pan the performances so that the bass singers sound comes out of say the right speaker while the soprano voices come out of the left speakers.
“He is amazing,” Ginsberg said.
Besides doing the sound and video mixing of the concert, Bender, along with members of the Jewish Community of Amherst Klezmer Ensemble, will both be accompanying Mak’hela on some of their numbers – Bender on tuba and trombone; his wife Anna Sobel, on percussion; Aaron Bousel on accordion; and Judy Gutlerner, both a member of Mak’hela and the JCA ensemble on clarinet.
The klezmer ensemble will also be performing three pieces on their own, said Bender, who also leads his own klezmer group, Yiddishkeit Klezmer Ensemble, and performs with Little Shop of Horas, the Wholesale Klezmer Band and Klezamir.
“I love it. It’s fun to put it all together and I think for the nursing homes we are giving these recordings to will enjoy it,” Bender said. “These are all great songs, and its always fun to play. I think its coming out well.”
In addition to being Mak’hela’s music director and conductor, Ginsberg is also a composer and arranger and she used that talent on this concert.
“Two of the songs we are doing I arranged for a four-part harmony and piano – “Mi Y’malel” and also I did a version of Debbie Friedman’s “Light These Lights” for four-part harmony, piano and flute,” she said. “So this will be the first time that it’ll be performed, which will be really nice. I’m looking forward to hearing all the voices put together.”
Despite the technological issues and hard work, the members of Mak’hela were pros when it came to this project, Ginsberg said.
“They’re enjoying it; they’re sticking with it,” Ginsberg said. “Each video that they make usually represents several hours of work – re-doing it and re-doing it because, you know, when you’re singing live with a group of people if you make the mistake, nobody’s going to notice it and everybody just keeps going. When you’re recording your own part and you know like this is set in stone, you don’t want to have wrong notes or wrong pronunciation. So it is a lot of work.”
Mak’hela, which usually is supported by member dues, frants and general donations, received funding from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Longmeadow Cultural Council for the making of the virtual concert.
“This technology is friendly fairly expensive. Because of that funding we were able to reduce what our normal dues would be for our members. We were able to make it a very minimal cost so we did put a big financial burden on our members.”
When completed, the concert will be put up onto YouTube and the link will be on Mak’hela’s website and newsletter.
“We’re also going to be encouraging our members to send it to people that they know,” said Bruce Brewer. “Because it’s virtual, we can spread it around in so many different ways…the audience actually is unlimited.”
They plan to release the concert on YouTube well before Chanukah, on or around Dec. 1.
“That’s sort of our initial target date, because we want the link to be embedded in announcements, so when they are sent to one of the local synagogues or to the JCC, the link is embedded and it will be sent out to their members,” Bruce said.
Ginsberg said that she hopes that next spring Mak’hela will be able to perform a live concert with a choir from an Amherst church that had to be post from last May.
“We’ll postpone it for as long as there is Covid. Their director and I are really committed to the project.”
And while labor intensive, she said she thinks the making of the virtual Chanukah concert has been a welcome reprieve from the concern about COVID.
“Many of Mak’hela’s members are retired, or semi retired,” she said. “So this has been a wonderful thing to do during retirement and COVID, when what you can’t do much of anything else, right?”