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West Hartford cantor orchestrates music for “The Night Concert”

By Stacey Dresner

A crowd of more than 3,000 gathered on Monday, Jan. 27 in Hannover, Germany to hear “The Night Concert” — the words of Elie Wiesel and the music of cantor and composer Leib Glantz and orchestrated by West Hartford’s Cantor Joseph Ness. 

The concert took place at the end of the 13th Annual European Cantor’s Association Convention, held in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and in association with the Jewish Community of Hannover and Association of Jewish Communities for Lower Saxony.

The Night Holocaust Project was conceived as a tool to educate high school and university students on the dangers of antisemitism. The concert sets the text of Night – the haunting memoir of the late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, who was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp at the age of 15 — with the music of renowned cantor, composer and Zionist Leib Glantz. 

When the project was just getting started, Glantz’s son, Jerry Glantz, contacted Joseph Ness and invited him to participate. In addition to serving as a member of the clergy at Beth El Temple in West Hartford for the past 28 years, Ness is a noted composer, orchestrator and arranger of hundreds of musical compositions and has been commissioned by orchestras from all over the world to create and conduct music.

“Jerry’s father was one of the sui generis cantors of the mid-20th century,” Ness told the Ledger recently. “He was stupendous; the voice was from God… It was really very powerful stuff that he sang.”

Ness said it took about four years, working on the piece off and on, to orchestrate Glantz’s liturgical music for the project. 

“Jerry asked me to take his father’s melodies and transform them into a kind of repertoire for orchestra and huge choirs – 100 people or more,” Ness explained. “Basically, I took melodies from this wonderful cantor and I re-composed the pieces, taking his solo stuff and making it into a rather large musical expression. It was a big project.”

The Night Concert premiered at the Kaliningrad Dome in Kaliningrad, Russia, on Jan. 27, 2019 – exactly one year before the Hannover concert – and soon after in Vilnius, Lithuania. At each performance, the narration – featuring the words of Wiesel’s Night – are spoken in the language of the country where it is being performed.

This most recent performance in Hannover featured narration in German by German actor Sebastian Koch. The concert featured the Hannover and Moscow Jewish Choirs, the Vilnius State Choir, and the Kaliningrad Symphony Orchestra, along with several solo vocal performers. Ness attended but was not the evening’s conductor. Also attending were dignitaries such as the regional president of Hannover, Hauke Jagau, and Prime Minister of the State of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil.

The performance was held in the Kuppelsaal Performing Arts Concert Hall in Hannover, which in 1930 was home to one of the 10 largest Jewish communities in Germany. After the war, concentration camp survivors – including 66 native Hanoverians – returned to re-establish the Jewish community, which now numbers more than 5,000 members.

Ness believes the concert in Hannover did have an impact on those in attendance.

“It was packed with about 3,600 people. There were very few Jews; it was basically Germans from Hannover,” he said. “When it was over I was shocked. I was expecting polite applause, but there were over eight callbacks for those performers. I think the program’s edifice provides meaning for people.”

Main Photo: Cantor Joseph Ness (right) at a pre-production meeting.

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