When Cantor David Tilman of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park hits the Kimmel Center stage next Wednesday for his "Sing Hallelujah" program of 19th and 20th century Jewish music, it will mark his conducting debut at Verizon Hall. He'll lead a choir of 170 voices, largely from local synagogues.
It won't, however, be Tilman's first time in the spotlight. For instance: "In 2003 I conducted a concert at Beth Sholom of an oratorio, Souls on Fire, starring Leonard Nimoy, of blessed memory. That was a trip," says the cantor, a longtime Star Trek devotee.
Tilman has prior Kimmel experience, too. He gave a lecture there in 2016 prior to the Philadelphia Orchestra's performances of Leonard Bernstein's Mass and Jeremiah Symphony, offering insights into their Jewish musical content.
Wednesday's program spans nearly two centuries of Jewish music written by European, American, and Jewish composers. "The music of the Jewish people resembles the music of the host communities: Jewish music of Berlin sounds like Germany, and Jewish music of the USA sounds American," Tilman says. "I hope that the audience understands this from the pieces they will hear."
The Kimmel's Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ will have a prominent role in the concert, as will the shofar — a ram's-horn trumpet used by ancient Jews in religious ceremonies and battle preparation, and by contemporary congregations at Rosh Hashanah services. Choirs and cantors from local synagogues will sing, joined by the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges.
Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms is one program highlight, and it has a personal connection for Tilman, who studied music both at the Jewish Theological Seminary's Miller Cantorial School and at the Juilliard School (with a major in choral conducting).
At Juilliard, he studied with Abraham Kaplan, who had prepared choruses for Bernstein, including the Chichester Psalms.
Tillman says he took a "circuitous route" to classical and liturgical music. Musically, he started out on accordion and was a big fan of Motown, the Beatles, and Broadway, along with 1950s Israeli pop music — "I played those songs on my accordion for years."
He came to choral music courtesy of the glee club at Columbia College, where he studied as an undergrad. Then, when he was 27, an elder cantor invited him to sing with a youth choir. "This moment sent me on my life mission," he says now.
"I believe with my heart and soul in the power of the Jewish choral experience to bring the community together and to teach the values of Jewish identity, practices, and beliefs," Tilman says. "I pray my commitment to the Jewish choral art — and its use as an educational tool — is understood and appreciated by all."