Making room for a cappella

The name Thalamus Vocal Quartet may infer a cerebral approach, but that simply isn’t the case.

Thalamus (photo credit: Courtesy of Jake Halperin)
(photo credit: Courtesy of Jake Halperin)
The ‘thalamus,’ for those not entirely immersed in the inner workings of the head, is a midline paired symmetrical structure ensconced in the brains of vertebrates. Its functions include relaying sensation, spatial sense and motor signals to the cerebral cortex, as well as regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness. Veteran British actor Michael Caine would probably respond to that information with his catchphrase “not a lot of people know that,” while the Thalamus Vocal Quartet’s tenor Jake Halperin is not sure that was the reasoning behind the thought-provoking appellation.
“It sounds interesting and probably, when they hear the name, people think: ‘I bet I’m the only one who doesn’t know what it means,’” laughs Halperin, adding that there may be a more pertinent explanation. “Thalamus also means ‘room’ [in ancient Greek], so maybe there’s a connection with chamber music. I don’t really know.”
Whatever the origin of the ensemble’s title, Halperin is certainly not the “guilty party” as he joined the other members of quartet – alto Naama Nazerathy- Gordon, soprano Shelly Berlinsky and baritone Oded Shomrony – only two years ago, seven years after the group was founded.
Since its inception, Thalamus has performed a wide range of Renaissance madrigals, Baroque music and contemporary Israeli music. It has performed at The Voice of Music Festival, Abu Gosh Festival and the International Writers’ Festival and is a regular entertainment item at ceremonies at the President’s Residence, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Tel Aviv.
Last year, the quartet put out its first eponymous album, which includes Israeli songbook staples such as “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Shir Haemek” alongside French Renaissance songs such as “La la la la je ne l’ose dire” by Pierre Certon and “Il est bel et bon” by Pierre Passereau.
All four members of the ensemble bring a wealth of experience, besides plenty of academic endeavor, to their performances. Berlinsky has a degree in vocal performance from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Nazerathy- Gordon studied singing and orchestral conducting at the same institution and Shomrony holds a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the academy. All perform with a variety of ensembles and all, except Haplerin, conduct choral groups.
For 29-year-old Halperin, taking his place in an a cappella group was a long time coming.
“I studied Hebrew language and musicology at the Hebrew University, and then I took a break from studying and started singing in choirs,” he recalls. “I never really thought of myself as a singer. I was interested in music and I played a bit of piano, mostly pop, like stuff by [American pop pianist-vocalist] Billy Joel.”
GRADUALLY, HALPERIN’S vocal exploits began to proliferate.
“I started to sing with the chamber music choir of the academy, with conductor Stanley Sperber,” he says. It was to be an enduring and formative experience for Halperin.
“I ‘served’ in the choir for five years,” he says. “I feel it was a sort of national service. I gave my heart and soul to the choir.”
There were rewards to be had from all the hard work too.
“I still feel it is my home-base choir, even though I am no longer with it,” notes Halperin. “I really grew up there. I turned from a vocalist who did not really think of himself as a singer, and was scared of his own voice, eventually into someone with the potential to be a vocal soloist.”
There was a learning curve to be negotiated with Sperber’s outfit.
“In the first year I sort of hid away in the choir. There were about 30 of us altogether, but sometimes eight of us would sing as a separate octet. That was always a big moment for me and I would really get the jitters. It’s not like singing solo, but it was pretty challenging for me at the time.”
Halperin has certainly stepped up to the plate now, and says being in Thalamus is an entirely different kettle of fish.
“You are far more exposed when there are only four of you, and no instruments, certainly far more so than when you are with a choir. In a choir you can allow yourself not to be entirely there. Even so, being in a quartet means you are less vulnerable than being the front man, the vocalist, of a group. There is nothing scarier than that, when you’re on your own on the stage.”
Halperin admits to being somewhat surprised at how his musical career has developed and says that, in a way, he became a vocalist by default.
“I never really thought about being a singer. I thought that being a jazz pianist, or maybe a classical pianist would be a cool thing to do. But I think I didn’t start on piano early enough, or possibly wasn’t talented enough at it. That always frustrated me but things just worked their way, in the vocal direction, and here I am, now, with Thalamus.”
Psychologists will tell you that our childhood experiences color our behavior for the rest of our life, and Halperin says that his early training on piano informs his vocal exploits and musical appreciation today.
“I think I always look for precision of pitch in singing, not being off key. That goes for my singing and other people’s singing. That probably comes from the piano.”
Mind you, you can take that to extremes.
“Sometimes I am oversensitive to that and, if I hear something that’s not pitch-perfect, that will spoil my enjoyment of the music.”
That shouldn’t be a problem with Thalamus on Friday.
Thalamus Vocal Quartet will perform January 27 at St. Andrews Scottish Church, Jerusalem; 12:30 p.m. For more information:, [email protected], 077-53555981 and 054-4278468