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Arts & Culture Australian Jewish Student Band Makes the World Its Musical Stage

December 18, 2002
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The stirring strains of a Gershwin medley are still reverberating through the main sanctuary of Shaare Zedek Congregation here as the applause builds.

It’s powerful, this music provided by the 51 students who make up Australia’s Moriah College Wind Ensemble.

What’s most incredible is neither the music nor the fact that these passionate musicians are just 12 to 18 years old.

It’s that the students are here, touring North America for the second time since 1999, and the fact that their 1,600- student institution, Moriah College, may boast the most unique musical program of any Jewish school in the world.

The band members performed in Montreal on Dec. 11 after successful performances in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas. They then hit the road again, heading to Baltimore and New York before returning home to Australia.

The Montreal concert was sponsored by the Bronfman Jewish Education Center in association with local Jewish day schools.

They are being accompanied by just three adults: a nurse; the school’s director of music, Roberta Goot; and guest conductor Russell Hammond, a part-time Moriah staff member.

Before the evening concert at Shaare Zedek, Goot’s pride in the students and the program was quite evident.

“This is the cream of the crop from our school, though we have six bands in all,” said Goot, who was a pianist before becoming music director at the 50-year-old school in Sydney.

About half of the students at Moriah play at least one musical instrument.

“No other Jewish school in the world has a program like ours,” veteran conductor Hammond said. “It has reached the point where they have to be withdrawn from their classes for their instrumental lessons.”

This might be a problem at other Jewish schools, where the workload is so rigid that music would be secondary, but not at Moriah.

“Everyone is behind these children, especially the parents and staff,” Goot said. “They are assisted with their musical goals because the skills learned in the program are not only musical in nature, but about life. While they have fun, they also learn about patience, tenacity, teamwork and commitment.”

Such skills and attitudes are instilled at weeklong music camps during the school year. The tours also cultivate talent and confidence.

“We raise the levels of their musical performance each time they play and, ultimately, these kids come back to Moriah as role models for the rest of the students,” he said.

The band’s repertoire is not completely Jewish.

“In symphonic repertoire, there is not much Jewish music,” Goot said. “So we play a wide range of compositions, and include whichever Jewish ones we can.”

The program certainly pleased the crowd in Montreal.

It started with a rousing dose of Gershwin and quickly moved to other striking, less familiar compositions, such as the technically challenging “The Swan,” by Saint-Saens, from his “Carnival of Animals;” Scottish composer Percy Grainger’s whimsical “Walking Tune;” and John Philip Sousa’s 1889 march, “The Thunderer.”

A “Les Miserables” medley included excerpts from five songs from the musical.

Jewish compositions included the stirring Israeli classic “Machar” and “Kaddish,” an emotional 1975 composition by W. Francis McBeth.

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