Jerome B. Kopmar, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, was an active cantor in Conservative synagogues until his retirement, in 1996. He received his cantorial training and diploma from the Cantors Institute (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School) of the Jewish Theological Seminary, attended the Hartt College of Music (University of Hartford), and was a scholarship student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied voice with the prominent American operatic soprano Eleanor Steber.
Cantor Kopmar will always be best known for founding and directing the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale, under the auspices of the synagogue of the same name in Dayton, Ohio, where he served the cantorial pulpit for twenty-seven years. He founded the chorus in 1971 for the dual purposes of elevating the musical format of that synagogue’s services and of offering concert performances for a broader general public. The mixed ensemble (at its peak some eighty members between the ages of nine and eighteen), rather than becoming merely a self-gratifying “singing group” of trendy camp tunes, as did so many other American Jewish youth groups of that time, was dedicated to serious rendition of Jewish and Judaically related music for concert as well as liturgical purposes. It quickly attracted national attention (the only American Jewish youth chorus to do so in the postwar decades), performed twice in Israel as well as in England and the Netherlands, and made several tours of the United States, all in addition to its annual spring concerts in Dayton.
Establishing such a chorus with a classical approach to both vocal production and repertoire was in itself a courageous undertaking in the early 1970s, when the winds of Jewish musical fashion (in Israel as well as in the United States)—especially with regard to youth involvement—were coming to be dominated by the allure of mass appeal and the features of pop and commercial sounds. Kopmar’s experiment, swimming against the tide, proved successful nonetheless and validated the convictions of those whose faith in the value and attraction of well-cultivated sacred as well as secular Jewish choral music remained undiminished.
Beyond the valuable educational and artistic experience for the children involved and the aesthetic pleasure they brought to their audiences, the most lasting contribution of this all-too-brief episode in American Jewish cultural history is the body of new works Cantor Kopmar commissioned for the chorale’s concert repertoire and its annual premiere offerings. Over a period of twelve years, until the dissolution of the chorale and his retirement, full-length works and shorter individual settings were commissioned from such composers as Issachar Miron, Charles Davidson, Morton Gold, Ralph Schlossberg, Abraham Kaplan, and Sholom Kalib—among others. Part of the motivation behind these commissions lay in the fact that very little appropriate repertoire existed for the specific three-voice treble makeup (SSA) of this chorus, since the conventional format of choirs in orthodox or other traditional synagogues, where women singers are excluded as a matter of religious law or sensibility, calls for the treble voices (unmatured boys) to sing the soprano and alto parts in concert with adult males on the tenor and bass lines—a four-part practice that dates at least to the 18th century in Europe. And that repertoire is almost exclusively liturgical, whether for worship or concert purposes, with conservative 19th-century harmonization. There is also a wealth of repertoire for two-part childrens' choir, but it is mostly for children’s (or parents’ and grandparents’) audiences as well as for synagogue school functions, with didactic texts rather than artistic aims. Cantor Kopmar wanted something more: musical expressions that would reflect the 20th century, albeit conservatively—harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically—and would exploit the three-part treble voicing, include orchestral accompaniment, and in some cases contain solo parts of interest to serious artists. He accurately predicted that the children would rise to the occasion in terms of rehearsal time and attention. Among the soloists with international reputations who appeared with the chorale in its annual spring concerts were the eminent cantors Louis Danto and Moshe Taubé, as well as one of the most acclaimed operatic tenors (and Jewish singers) of the 20th century, former Metropolitan Opera star Jan Peerce, in a performance at the age of seventy-nine that turned out to be his last.
Inspired and intrigued by the music he commissioned each year, Cantor Kopmar began composing more actively himself. Fellow cantors took an interest in his liturgical settings, many of which filled voids in the standard repertoire with their desired conservative yet contemporary approach, and commissions followed from cantors and synagogues throughout the United States and Canada. Among his recordings is Songs of My Heart, which features him performing his own compositions with the Wesleyan Chamber Orchestra.
After retiring from his cantorial pulpit, Cantor Kopmar became an adjunct professor of vocal studies at Sinclair College in Dayton, where he has also directed the Women’s Camerata Singers.
The Milken Archive currently features Jerome Kopmar's setting of mi yit'neni as part of A Post-1970's Yom Kippur Afternoon, Memorial and Concluding Services in Volume 3.
By: Neil W. Levin
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