Shir Madness, Sydney’s Jewish Music Festival returned on a damp Sunday to the Emanuel Synagogue for a day of music, food, and community in celebration of the contributions Jewish composers, musicians, and writers have made and continue to make to the music industry. With musical acts from across the country and across the world, the day was packed with all sorts of genres and styles to enjoy.
Emanuel Synagogue sits in Sydney’s suburb of Woollahra behind modern sandstone slabs that almost entirely hide the buildings from the street. You could easily miss the grounds from looking at the classic Sydney terrace houses and Art Deco apartment buildings along Ocean Street. Behind those walls, though, a beautiful compound of religious and community buildings form Emanuel Synagogue.
Shir Madness was spread across three stages with a children’s entertainment area in the Old Pre-School which each ran their own curated set lists. Festivities started mid-morning and ran all the way into the evening with plenty to duck into and out of throughout the day.
The large main stage in the Main Sanctuary ran the set “Beautiful Noise” and started the morning off easy with one of Australia’s favoured composers Elena Kats-Chernin. She shared some of her compositions on the piano with asides to explain the backstories or ironies of her commissions, including explaining her piece “Butterfly”, adapted from her commissioned piece for the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Her style is light and airy, flitting across the keys rather than pounding with a pressing drama. Kats-Chernin even took the opportunity to generously share some of her composing practice with an improvised piece based on audience suggestions. It was just the spirit to start the festival with.
Quickly following Elena Kats-Chernin on the main stage were beloved classical performers Simon Tedeschi and Roger Benedict. Playing through some of the great compositions from Jewish composers throughout history, they opened with a very challenging adaptation of a piece composed for the obsolete instrument arpeggioni (like a cross between a guitar and a cello) by Schubert. Like Tedeschi explained, Shubert’s piece is playful and rambunctious turning the contrasting piano and viola into children rolling and rollicking about.
It was when Tedeschi began his solos, though, that the audience became really enthused. Playing two pieces by Gershwin, a composer he is known for playing beautifully, Tedeschi received cheers from the viewers as be announced the turn into jazzier times. Slinking across the keys with a cool ease, his adaptation of Gershwin’s most famous composition, “Summertime” has intermittent bursts of life and long trills that keep the song kicking forward.
On another stage, in the Neuweg Synagogue, the Tapestry set shifted focus towards contemporary Jewish songwriters and music styles. Set against a blazing stained glass wall at the far end of the synagogue, with a radiating Star of David and two flanking menorahs, these acts provided an exciting contrast between Jewish traditions and spirituality, and the contemporary world. The underlighting also added a younger vibe to the space by making it feel more like a gig atmosphere than a religious concert.
Chelsea Berman with her country rock style was punky in a sequinned star dress. Playing both originals from her debut EP Better Than Ever and covers of classic country and pop songs, Berman had the crowd tapping their feet, especially the little ones. Her style comes across as a dirty Dixie Chicks without the punch of Shania Twain, singing largely about love and heartbreak like any good country singer does. A song with particular pizazz was “Kiss Kiss”, an original about a friendship breakup in keeping with the trend of female artists putting friendship centre stage. The heavy back-beat with racing lyrics added dynamics and a quicker pace to the performance.
In a similar vein, Bonnie Love brought rockabilly soul and jazz stylings to the stage for a clash of cultural images. Made up of Sara Yael and Elizabeth Dawson-Smith, the pair originated in Queensland but currently reside in Melbourne. Yael’s voice was outstanding with a deep growl and captivating tone. Her songs, which covered friendship, love, being Jewish, and Seinfeld, had a crackling quality that elevated mundane feelings like binge-watching tv to the unusual. The final song incorporated excellent use of breath to add emotion and a point of difference to their rhythm.
A festival favourite was easily the Alma Zygier Quartet. After her performance at Shir Madness 2017, Alma Zygier returns to the stage with three accompanying musicians to back-up her raw jazz stylings of Broadway hits written by Jewish writers in between 1920s and 1940s. Unfortunately, Zygier’s coming down with food poisoning dampened the physical energy of the performance and confined her to a chair centre stage. The energy in her voice, however, was still very much present. To say Zygier’s voice in unique would be an understatement of how youthful and fresh she sounds without losing a deep-seated history and appreciation for the work of the past. The audience, which was packed into the performance space and lining the back walls, was delighted to hear another rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” with the lyrics this time. It was a testament to how beloved the icons of Jewish history are that this was seen as a privilege rather than a repeat.
Her accompaniests were equally impressive, particularly the clarinetist, Benjamin Samuels, who leaned into his solos with a creativity and clarity that was so enjoyable to watch. The performance was a recognition of the history of Jewish influence in the Broadway music scene which left a very positive energy in the room, so much so that Zygier’s rendition of “Let My People Go” immediately became an impromptu sing-along. A festival stand-out, for sure.
The remainder of the evening featured big names, big voices, and big personalities back on the main stage. By this point, attendees had become looser and more willing to physically engage with the performances: we’re talking dancing in the aisles.
On the Stoop is a six-piece ensemble band with a wildly eclectic sound and taste. Matching narrative lyrics with horn-heavy back-beats and an overall loud tone, the band was a marketed change from other scheduled performers. Their sound was infectious, though, and lured many viewers in from the surrounding hallways to swing amongst the pews.
Flying up from Melbourne for the festival, musical comedian Jude Perl was a silly treat for the early evening crowd. Her quirky lyrics about anti-capitalism, dating, identity, and the social zeitgeist were equal parts astute and hilarious, having audience members throwing their heads back in laughter throughout her performance. The songs were like if you turned the inner buzz of your mind into a musical and then projected it across a room of strangers in a place of worship, cringing all the way. Perl was charming and deeply relatable even while performing with a real polish and professionalism.
Then brought on the headline act for this year’s Shir Madness: Nefesh Mountain. After completing a family performance earlier in the day, Nefesh Mountain returned to the stage to share their songs of spirituality and love. Festival Director Gary Holzman introduced the band as representative of the spirit of the festival itself in the way they uniquely blend Jewish traditions in symbolism and melodies with contemporary concerns and engagement with wider cultures. Lead singer Doni Zasloff explains this connection as a mutual celebration of nature.
Hailing from New York, this bluegrass group infuse their lyrics, in both English and Hebrew, with love for each other and their community as they represent Judaism to a larger world of folk music enthusiasts and listeners. Their style features a lot of banjo mixed in with violin and double bass in keeping with bluegrass conventions. Zasloff’s voice flies over top of everything, praising and rejoicing in the simplicities and harmonies of life as a spiritual journey. As the headliner performance, Nefesh Mountain gave the attendees a chance to come together and spend time listening to music, dancing, and clapping along with each other in a freer format than the formality of a service might provide.
The community atmosphere of Shir Madness is palpable while roaming through the synagogue’s halls and around the complex’s grounds. There’s an excitement in the air as people reconnect; perhaps this is the only chance they have to see each other all year, or like some festival goers, they’re seeing each other after a span of nearly a decade. Whatever the connection, hands were being shaken and arms were waving across rooms all day in acknowledgement of shared space and time amongst this community.
After the lights had faded on another encore and the sun finally set behind Sydney’s hills, walking through the grounds, across sand stone pavers and amongst fresh sapling trees, the golden glow from Neuweg Synagogue flows like honey, adding warmth to an otherwise brisk, wet spring evening. The feeling is fullness, of being sated with care and consideration from the festival coordinators, performers, and attendees of what it means to acknowledge, celebrate, and continue a tradition of great Jewish music-making in Australia.