The state of Israel marks its 60th anniversary in May, and veteran Valley composer Andrea Jill Higgins expects her new work, “Or Chadash L’artzeinu,” will be sung in Israel and worldwide during this year of celebration.
In early December, Higgins was at the piano, with 10 cantors, in the San Diego Convention Center premiering her work in front of 3,000 people. It was performed during the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish group with more than 1.5 million members. Higgins was commissioned to do the music by the American Conference of Cantors and the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
It was a career milestone for the Scottsdale musician who served 29 years as music director at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley. The cantors who made up the ensemble at the premiere told her afterward that they hope she is invited to Israel this year to perform the work.
The text to the music is short and repeats again and again in the 2 1/2-minute work, which is in Hebrew and English. The title, “Or Chadash L’artzeinu” means “light anew” and “our land.” The melody draws from two prayers, “Or Chadesh” and “Vhavi-einu,” which mean “shine a new light on Zion” and “gather us in peace.”
The lines that Higgins repeats throughout the work are: “Shine a new light upon Zion, that we all may swiftly merit its radiance” and “gather us in peace, from the four corners of the Earth, and lead us upright in our land.”
Those words come as new affirmation that the Reform movement of Judaism more fully embraces Zionism, the concept of a Jewish nation state. Reform Judaism had previously emphasized the importance of Jews assimilating with their cultures and accepting modernism, rather than concentrating Jews within their own state or returning to a homeland. In 1885, Reform Jews adopted a platform that they no longer had expectations that Jews should return to their homeland, even that “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and, therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine ... nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” But during the 1930s, especially, opinions changed.
The state of Israel came into being on May 14, 1948, impelled by a two-thirds vote of the United Nation’s General Assembly. New impetus for Reform Jews to change their position about a Jewish state came in 1978 with the founding of the Association of Reformed Zionists in America.
More recently, passages that relate to Zion have been added to the liturgy of new Reform siddur, or daily and Sabbath prayer book, containing daily services and prayers.
Since the premiere, Higgins has been fine-tuning the piece with piano and computer before it goes to the publisher. “I write so many notes, and I try to be very careful about my voice leading, especially in the piano parts,” she said. The commission was to craft a work for cantor and two-part choir. “It is not supposed to be for a professional-type choir,” she said. “The parts are easier, and I wrote the melody so that it can be carried as a solo.”
Working with Higgins for the piece’s premiere was cantor Alane Katzew, the director of music programming for the Union of Reform Judaism, based in New York City.
“It is a beautiful lyrical piece that has a real resonance with the feeling of the text,” she said. Katzew said time given at the conference to perform it was limited. “Had we been able to do the full version, I think it would have engaged more, because as the piece goes on, it becomes more musically complex.”
Katzew, who has known Higgins for 20 years and personally premiered several of her works, said Higgins is among the well-established composers of Jewish music today. “She is one of a dozen or so composers whom we have come to rely upon as the source for works that meet the needs of today’s Reform synagogues, especially in terms of her understanding the difference between volunteer choirs and professional choirs and solo pieces that are intended for cantorial singing,” Katzew said.
“Because of her many, many years of working in synagogues, she understands intrinsically what is needed, and she responds accordingly with the right level of music, as well as the right style,” Katzew said. She lauded Higgins for producing music with “the sensibility that is appropriate for certain settings” and said “Or Chadash L’artzeinu” hits the mark.
“I think it will be done by many cantors from around the country as we approach the 60th anniversary,” she said.
Higgins said being invited to compose a piece was a great honor.
A native of New York City, Higgins was improvising music at the age of 4 on her grandmother’s piano. By 7, she was starting classic studies and was offered a scholarship to storied Juilliard School in New York at age 11. When Higgins was 12, her family settled in Tucson, and she resumed piano lessons, including study under the Tucson Symphony Orchestra conductor.
Higgins earned a bachelor of arts degree in music composition from Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Along the way, she won music contests, trained under more noted musicians and wrote a musical in college, “The Two-Inch President.” Later, she received a master of music degree in musical direction from Arizona State University and plunged into a wide array of Valley music organizations, including the Herberger Mainstage Lyric Opera Theater at ASU. Her resume notes she has directed more than 100 music theater productions. She writes and arranges music in numerous styles, including jazz, opera, pop, musical theater and liturgical.
Though no longer on staff at Temple Solel, Higgins gets the singers together for events in the community and other temples. “We’re almost like a chavurah,” or fellowship group that gets together for special events.
“We have been together a long time,” she said. “They all sang for me during the High Holidays at Kol Ami (Temple in Phoenix ) even though we were not at Temple Solel. We have 20 in the group and rehearse anywhere.”