BOSTON – November began in memorable fashion for North Shore native and composer Allan Naplan.
On Nov. 2 and 3, Naplan’s piece, “Al Shlosha D’Varim,” was performed by the Handel and Haydn Society Children’s Choir during its annual Every Voice concert, which honors diverse communities within Boston as a way to unite the city through music. This year, the concert celebrated both the African-American and Jewish communities through music, with performances at the First Church in Roxbury and the Union United Methodist Church in the South End.
Naplan’s piece, based on Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), was composed in the early 1990s, and was part of a Jewish repertoire that also included works from Renaissance composers such as Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish violinist and composer. African-American composers included contemporary voices such as Zanaida Robles (“Umoja”) and historical characters such as Martin Delany, a major in the Civil War who was among the first three black men to gain acceptance to Harvard Medical School, and penned a version of “Oh! Susanna” with antislavery lyrics.
When Naplan – who lives and works in Arizona as executive and producing director of the Arizona Musicfest performance series – was told about the Handel and Haydn selections of works from members of the black and Jewish communities, he said, “I think it’s certainly a natural connection.” He cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “the great rabbis of the time, (Abraham Joshua) Heschel, the rabbis who marched (with King), great leaders, marching with blacks for civil rights. Tikkun olam (repairing the world) is at the core of being Jewish.”
The following week, on the other side of the country, Naplan opened his seventh season with the Arizona Musicfest in Scottsdale, with the featured guest being singer and actress Vanessa Williams. She performed “Colors of the Wind” from the 1995 animated film “Pocahontas,” a song that won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. After Naplan found out that Williams is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, he learned that Arizona has a unified choir that includes special needs students, and he brought them to the concert to perform the hit song with Williams, with his own musical arrangement.
From Arizona to Boston, music is Naplan’s world, and it has been ever since his days growing up on the North Shore – first in Peabody, then in Marblehead, where his late mother, Dianne Naplan, was a longtime music teacher at what is now the Epstein Hillel School. His works, many of which reflect his interest in Jewish music, have sold 1.3 million copies and have been performed in such high-profile venues as the White House and Carnegie Hall – and, tragically, aboard the space shuttle Columbia, when his “An American Anthem” was the wake-up call on the first morning of its doomed 2003 voyage. The crew perished during reentry into the Earth’s orbit, and among those who died was inaugural Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
At the Arizona Musicfest, Naplan has brought big-name talent such as Williams, Neil Sedaka, Rosanne Cash, and even the Violins of Hope, a collection of violins rescued from the Holocaust, used in a two-concert series with American-born Israeli Gil Shaham for the performance of Naplan’s “Schlof Main Kind, a Yiddish Lullaby,” which was commissioned for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Yom HaShoah ceremony in 1994.
Naplan is also a cantorial soloist for multiple houses of worship, and in the past has been an opera singer and administrator.
“I feel very lucky, I feel very fortunate. From a very early age, I was surrounded by Jewish and classical music,” Naplan recalled, noting that his parents “thought nothing of driving into Boston” to hear the Boston Symphony or “anything of a Jewish musical nature,” such as the annual Chassidic Song Festival. But after graduating from Brandeis with degrees in vocal performance and musical education and pursuing a career as an educator, he was frustrated by options for Jewish music in the classroom.
“So much of ‘Jewish music’ was tokenism … Hanukkah music,” he recalled.
Naplan channeled his frustration into composing works that would benefit the repertoire, songs that could be performed “all throughout the year because of the value musically, or the value of the context, what the text was,” he said. He looked for inspiration in non-sacred texts because of what he describes as the dilemma of performing sacred music, whether Jewish or Christian, in a public school setting.
“I was very fortunate to develop a catalog that’s been highly embraced by professional and amateur choirs and schools,” Naplan said. “It’s been wonderful, totally unexpected.”
That catalog includes “Al Shlosha D’Varim,” which was first composed about 25 years ago. Naplan is familiar with the traditional song from Reform Shabbat services prior to the Torah reading. Its lyrics state that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, prayer, and lovingkindness. For this piece, he looked for “a theme that serves everyone, not unique to being a Jewish theme,” and found another version, which stated that the three things that sustain the world are truth, justice and peace, which “obviously has a very wide reach to anyone singing the piece,” he said. “They can speak to any audience and any singer.”
At the Handel and Haydn Society concerts, Naplan’s Al Shlosha D’Varim was performed by the society’s Children’s Choir, with a piano accompanist. Beginning with a solo, the piece shifted to the choir singing in unison before reaching a crescendo.
“Music, for me, is something very special,” he said. “It’s always a great unifier. It doesn’t have to be political. Everyone can enjoy and participate. I think it’s really wonderful. I’m touched that they chose to include my work.”