Reaching for the Heavens:
The Music of Composer Gerald Cohen

By :  Gerald Cohen Assistant Professor of Music, H.L. Miller Cantorial School Posted On May 10, 2022 / 5782

Reaching for the Heavens featured the vibrant and compelling music of Gerald Cohen, a leading composer of concert and Jewish music, and a faculty member of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School for nearly 30 years, as well as the Cassatt String Quartet and other renowned performers.

The program includes two pieces performed by the Cassatt String Quartet, with whom Cohen has had a long artistic collaboration: Voyagers, for clarinet and string quartet, a celebration of the Voyager spacecraft that were the first to explore our solar system, and of the music that the two Voyagers took on their journey; and Preludes and Debka, for trombone and string quartet. The program also features two premieres: Sea of Reeds, an arrangement for solo piano of some of Cohen’s best-known songs; and “Amid the Alien Corn,” a vocal duet based on the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi.

In addition to the Cassatt String Quartet, the renowned performers include Ilana Davidson, soprano; Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Joan, piano; Narek Arutyunian, clarinet; and Haim Avitsur trombone.

Sponsored by The Library of JTS and H. L. Miller Cantorial School.

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Gerald Cohen is an assistant professor at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School of JTS, on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, and has been cantor at Shaarei Tikvah (Scarsdale, New York) for 35 years. As a composer, he has been praised for his “linguistic fluidity and melodic gift,” creating music that “reveals a very personal modernism that . . . offers great emotional rewards” (Gramophone Magazine).

His opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, based on a true concentration camp love story, had its world premiere production by Opera Colorado in January 2018; excerpts were featured at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Festival in 2016. Cohen’s earlier opera Sarah and Hagar, based on the story from the book of Genesis, has been performed in concert form. Cohen is a noted synagogue cantor and baritone; his experience as a singer informs his dramatic, lyrical compositions. Cohen’s best-known work, his “shimmering setting” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) of Psalm 23, has received thousands of performances from synagogues and churches to Carnegie Hall and the Vatican. Among his recent chamber music works are Playing for our Lives and Voyagers; these compositions, composed for the Cassatt String Quartet, will be the centerpieces of an album of Cohen’s music to be released on Innova Recordings in 2022. 

Recognition of Cohen’s body of work includes commissioning grants from Meet the Composer, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, American Composers Forum, residencies including those at  Copland House, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and American Lyric Theater, as well as Cantors Assembly’s Max Wohlberg Award for distinguished achievement in the field of Jewish composition, and the Hallel V’Zimrah Award from the Zamir Choral Foundation. Cohen received a BA in music from Yale and a DMA in music composition from Columbia. His compositions have been published by Oxford University Press, G. Schirmer / AMP and Transcontinental Music Publications.

The Cassatt String Quartet members are Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Gwen Krosnick, cello; and Rosemary Nelis, viola.

Acclaimed as one of America’s outstanding ensembles, the Manhattan-based Cassatt String Quartet has performed throughout North America, Europe, and the Far East. The Cassatt’s numerous awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the USArtists International, Chamber Music America, CMA/ASCAP, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Meet the Composer, and the Amphion, Copland, Fromm and Alice M. Ditson Music Foundations. Since 1995, the ensemble has been on the performing artist roster for the New York State Council on the Arts.

With a deep commitment to nurturing young musicians, the Cassatt has offered classes for composers and performers at the American Academy, Rome; the Toho School, Tokyo; Bowdoin International Music Festival; Columbia; Cornell; Princeton; Syracuse Universities, and the University of Pennsylvania. The quartet is in residence annually at Maine’s Seal Bay Festival of American Contemporary Chamber Music and Cassatt in the Basin! in Texas.