About Shofar:  An Oratorio in Four Parts





On the afternoon of Sunday November 5, 2006, at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I attended the premiere of Shofar:  An Oratorio in Four Parts by Robert Stern composer, Catherine Madsen librettist.  David Hodgkins, Artistic Director of Coro Allegro, conducted the chorus, orchestra, and four soloists:  Deborah Rentz-Moore mezzo-soprano, Frank Kelley tenor, David Kravitz baritone, and Donald Wilkinson baritone.

The performance itself took place after the intermission.  Before the intermission both composer and librettist spoke about the work, with the chorus, orchestra, and some of the soloists performing short excerpts to demonstrate some of the points. 

Robert Stern, a retired professor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote at  “In Jewish history, liturgy and literature the shofar (ram's horn) appears frequently as a call to worship, to personal awakening, to acknowledgement of human weakness or brokenness, and a call to return to wholeness. The libretto is in four sections corresponding to the four shofar calls used on the Jewish Day of Atonement, which together signify the progression from wholeness to brokenness to shattering and back to wholeness.”

An actual shofar is not used in the piece, but a musician did demonstrate the sound of a shofar during the composer’s presentation.

The oratorio is “taking the sounds of those blasts and using them as a metaphor for starting off whole and traveling through the shattering of your soul and then becoming whole again. It[‘]s a way of expressing those shofar blasts,” says the composer in Coro Allegro’s blog at  “[T]here are other aspects of the libretto that amplify and reflect on the issues of the relationships between God and humankind. So a lot of the text is from Exodus, but there are excerpts from other parts of the Bible, the Song of Songs. There is the prophet Hosea. And there are excerpts from Genesis, intermixed with verses that were composed by Catherine herself. She also used some texts from medieval and contemporary poets. Catherine compiled a remarkable libretto from these biblical sources, and from her own creative work. It[‘]s just a marvelous set of texts for the composer --- a dream text, really.”

I found the oratorio interesting and moving.  The performances by chorus, orchestra, and soloists were all excellent.