"Crossing Over: A Musical Haggadah" gives new sound to Passover traditions

Inspired by something as familiar as the Haggadah, pianist composer Michael Allen Harrison and Rabbi Alan Berg have created 'Crossing Over: A Musical Haggadah' which will have its world premiere April 12 at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Portland. With music by Harrison and book by Harrison and Berg, the concert is a unique multi-sensory interpretation of the Exodus story.

At Passover Seders, each participant has a Haggadah, an instruction book that leads you through the Seder, explaining the symbolism of the foods, events and stories told. The text is formal and never varies from generation to generation.

Harrison said the idea came from the wish his father expressed years ago that he undertake a musical project to give to the Jewish faith, similar to Leonard Bernstein's signature symphony, 'Kaddish. '

'Dad thought I should do something like that,' Harrison said. 'But what would it be?'

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Israel's independence, Harrison composed 'Remembrance' in 1998. The piece was performed in Portland's Washington Park with the Oregon Symphony and later before the United Nations.

'We played at the World Peace Conference at The Hague at Prince William Theater,' he said. 'The theater is huge - it holds 5,000 people.' Even with the overwhelming acclaim 'Remembrance' received Harrison felt he wanted to do more to respect his father's wishes.

Harrison said he always associated Passover with his father; it is an important holiday for their family.

'Passover (to Jews) is as big as Christmas (to Christians). It's the kind of holiday where we remember our history … what happened to the people in Egypt. He led the seder,' Harrison said of his father. 'Preparation was a big deal. We used special china and crystal, Seder plates and wine. It is all done a certain way as tradition.'

For some time he 'heard whispers,' or got ideas, about what he might compose and then it was clear: He would compose a musical Haggadah.

Berg, spiritual leader at Beit Haverim in Lake Oswego and renowned religious scholar, was a close friend of the senior Harrison. They shared a keen interest in music, which coupled with his scholarly knowledge, made Berg the natural choice with whom to collaborate with Harrison on the project.

'We decided about two months ago to do the project,' said Harrison. 'It is wonderful and exciting but also - ah!

'I consider this to be one of my greatest achievements as a composer, inspired by my father's dream for me to make a significant contribution to the Jewish community and all communities of faith' said Harrison. 'This musical interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt and the story of redemption and freedom will be a deep meaningful experience as we awaken our spirits this spring.'

The production includes a choir of 30 children and a wealth of musical numbers by sister soloists Kayla and Ashley Bleoajas, Gary Wayne Cash, Anna Heinze, Kirk Mouser, Julianne Johnson and Ida Rae Cahana as canter, and others. A full orchestra will perform, as well as Harrison on piano, his brother Brian Harrison on guitar, sister Linda Harrison Fintzy on flute and his step-mother Dodie Harrison on bass clarinet.

Art from an illustrated Haggadah by Leonard Baskin will be projected onto screens onstage, which will be set with a Seder table.

'It was a real joy to walk into a complete concept and to experience working with Michael,' said Berg. 'I've discovered the power of the Haggadah by going deeper into the text, which enables me to teach it better. This is a new creation based on a traditional experience, and it has a feeling that's right at the heart of Passover. If you really want to know what 'Crossing Over' is about, musically, spiritually and communally, you will have to be there. There has never been anything quite like its combination of music and Passover.

'Remember that crossing through the Red Sea is the shared Jewish miracle. Through this concert event we want to give that to people in a way they've never experienced.'

The performances, which are benefits for Oregon Area Jewish Committee, are scheduled for April 12 at 7:30 p.m. and April 15 at 2 p.m. at Mittleman Jewish Community Center, 6651 S.W. Capitol Highway in Portland.

Tickets are $35 general admission or $15 for youth and students. Patron tickets are available for $100, which includes preferred reserved seating and 'Crossing Over' CD.

Reservations can be made online at or by calling 503-295-6761.

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