Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s former music director, who is now professor of Liturgical Arts at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, returns to address the congregation during Shabbat services on Friday night, March 9, to honor Rabbi Earl Starr on the occasions of his retirement and his 70th birthday. The service will include the world premiere of Professor Bonia Shur’s setting of “Yiheyu L’ratzon” (“May the words”), the meditative last line of Psalm 15. TDHS members Steve Pruzan and Laurie and Mike Cohen commissioned Shur to write the music.
“The Composer as a Channel of Prayer” is the title of Shur’s sermon, in which he promises to “try to involve the congregation. I will improvise.”
Improvisation was a hallmark of Shur’s work in Seattle, where he was associated with Temple De Hirsch from 1967 through 1974.
He and his wife, the choreographer Fanchon Shur, created a unique artistic performing group, “Impulse,” during their tenure here. Meeting once a month with young musicians, dancers, painters, and poets, the two created a system of improvisation that allowed the orchestra to create a structured sound and the dancers an expressive form; the artists then would paint the scenes and the poets would write impressions. “This form of creating music with young instrumentalists and semi-professional dancers was and maybe still is the first artistic body of this nature in this country,” Shur notes proudly.
“It was heartbreaking,” Shur says of his and Fanchon’s departure from Seattle in 1974. But he “could not refuse” the offer of an appointment to the newly created position of Professor of Liturgical Arts at the Reform movement’s flagship rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Shur says he has now educated over 400 rabbis. In Seattle, his former students include Rabbis Jonathan and Beth Singer of Temple Beth Am.
“Professor Shur is passionate, powerful and effusive,” recalls Rabbi Beth Singer, whose congregation uses Shur’s setting of the Kedusha every Shabbat morning. Shur taught her to chant Haftarah. “He puts everything into his music; he wants to share his gift.”
Shur has composed hundreds of liturgical pieces, in addition to music for television, theater and film. A native of Latvia, he escaped the Nazi invasion, fought in the Russian army, emigrated to Israel and lived on a kibbutz for many years before coming to the United States in 1960. His music has been performed by orchestras and choruses around the world.
Shur collaborated with Johnny Mandel on the vocal score to the motion picture “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” in 1966; in 1968, the TV Hanukkah special, “Revolt in Mode’in,” produced in Seattle with Shur’s music, earned him a National Television Academy Award. His son, Itaal Shur, is following in the family footsteps. It was his song “Smooth” which won the 1999 Song of the Year Grammy on Santana’s “Supernatural.”
Bonia Shur’s recent conversations with Rabbi Earl Starr inspired his choice of the meditation “Yiheyu L’ratzon/May the Words” to honor the rabbi’s retirement. “I’ve chosen it because it deals with life, destiny and God, which we think about when we face a major change in life.
“I wanted to meditate. This particular text has been set to music so many times, so many interpretations, that they range from meditations to art songs. This is a love song to a lover/force which is infinite.”
The composition is for flute, piano, and voice. Cantor Marina Belenky, TDHS’s current music director, will be the vocal soloist in her predecessor’s composition. She notes that the congregation’s approach to music has changed since Shur’s tenure there. Whereas he recalls a staid reluctance by worshippers to participate with song, she says today’s congregants ask her to include as many opportunities for communal singing as she can.
During his seven years in Seattle, Bonia Shur energetically encouraged musical participation from as many congregants and community members as possible. In addition to “Impulse,” he and Fanchon created the vocal-instrumental ensemble “Lahakah” (Hebrew for performing group), premiering the folk-rock service “Edge of Freedom” by Raymond Smolover and touring with it to temples around the region. He brought together an instrumental ensemble of women, the Sisterhood choir and female dancers for a groundbreaking “Concert of the Jewish Creative Woman” in 1969. He created a series of annual concerts at the temple, collaborations between the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra and the THDS Sisterhood choir. Fanchon Shur contributed to the creative life of the city as one of the cofounders of Dance Theatre Seattle.
“In the younger generation I know poppas and mommas who were my students,” said Shur smiling. Now he returns to honor a friend on the heels of a gala event in Cincinnati to honor his own work. Artists from the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music performed the religious and secular songs they recorded on the CD “Music by Bonia Shur,” which is due for release later this spring.