By Melissa Bounoua /THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A strong voice echoed through the dome of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Northwest one Tuesday evening last month. Under dim yellow and pink lights, 20-year-old British diva Adele captivated a mixed-age audience seated on wooden benches in the intimate atmosphere of this holy building.
With acoustics worthy of the best live-music venues, this historic house of worship is a far cry from the cavernous and impersonal settings where big bands usually play.
The Sixth and I Historic Synagogue has emerged as the new “it place” for concerts with a diverse menu of offerings ranging from last month’s appearance by Idina Menzel, the Tony-award-winning star of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” to Grizzly Bear, the Brooklyn-based experimental-folk-indie rock band, which will perform here in August.
The schedule of events is hardly limited to music. Last month, for example, David Gregory, NBC News chief White House correspondent, discussed political ethics, and Salman Rushdie discussed his new novel, “The Enchantress of Florence.”
“We are glad to be a new cultural place for everybody, not just Jewish artists,” says Jackie Leventhal, the synagogue’s cultural programming associate.
“These gigs are a way to reach new people,” says Rachel Sandor, Sixth and I’s publicist. “We are building a community that brings diversity, and it is important for us to showcase various kinds of music.”
Fine, but what about the synagogue’s, um, regular customers?
“Music concerts don’t disturb the rabbis and worshippers,” says Aaron Weintraub, Sixth and I’s family and religious programming associate. “They are glad that more people come to the synagogue.”
The synagogue’s emergence as the unlikeliest of new music venues in the area is no accident: Since March 2007, it has been partnering with the world’s biggest live-music company, Live Nation.
“Live Nation was looking for new venues at the same time that we were trying to expand by creating new partnerships,” recalls Mr. Weintraub. “They approached us, and from there discussions turned into a short lineup of shows.”
“They manage the tours of several artists, and when one of their artists comes to Washington, they contact us and we decide if it fits in our place,” explains Ms. Sandor. “We chose to host up-and-coming artists because our concert hall would be too small for bigger acts.”
A striking combination of modernized French and Byzantine cathedral styles, the synagogue was built in 1908 and re-acquired by its congregation in 2002 from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had acquired it after World War II.
“This is such a beautiful place,” exclaimed singer Laura Burhenn, from opening act Georgie James, saying she had never been to the synagogue before. “I am quite excited to be here.”
With its graceful arches and brightly colored stained glass designs depicting Jewish motifs, the space is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. During the Adele concert, two teenagers paused from text messaging on their cell phones long enough to shoot a picture of the reddish-brown Star of David inscribed within a series of concentric circles at the center of the sanctuary’s sky blue dome.
The talent seems to appreciate the setting as much as the audience. “Bryan Adams, the Canadian rock singer, came here in May and actually said he wanted to come back,” says Mr. Weintraub.
The intimate scale of the Sixth and I Synagogue brings audience and performers into both closer proximity and rapport. After the Adele concert, fans gathered around the young star’s tour bus parked in front of the historic synagogue. Cameras flashed as Adele signed autographs. The holy site vanished, replaced by a congregation of groupies.