Concert Review: Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

by Dobe (Dena) Ressler

A review of a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, March 3, 2013 C.E., featuring:
Itzhak Perlman, violin;
Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, khazn (“vocal soloist”);
Klezmer Conservatory Band, Hankus Netsky, musical director; Russell Ger, conductor; with members of Boston Musica Viva.
Boston Jewish Music Festival, 2013

This article originally appeared in Boston's Jewish Advocate on 3/15/13.

When's the last time you saw people dancing in the aisles at Symphony Hall? It doesn't happen often, but when Hankus Netsky directs a concert, even the improbable can happen.

It started when the Israel-born superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman was in Tel Aviv about three years ago with some free time. As he related to Alan Steinberg last August, “I saw in an advertisement that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra would be performing … with a cantor named Helfgot. I was curious, so my wife and I decided to attend the concert.… Í was absolutely amazed by Helfgot. His voice has a range that is absolutely phenomenal. Yet he sings with remarkable ease. I immediately said to myself: Wouldn’t it be wonderful he and I could do something together!”

Khazn (Cantor) Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, also born in Israel and like Perlman, a New Yorker (Boro Park, Brooklyn) had himself dreamed about performing with Perlman since childhood. A Ger Hasid, Helftgot, 43, had studied at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute and worked in Frankfort, Germany. He is no stranger to the concert stage—in 2006 he sang with the NY Philharmonic Orchestra and a year later to 30,000 Orthodox men in Madison Square Garden. As Chief Cantor at Manhattan’s Park Avenue East Synagogue since 2005, he was also familiar to many East Coast luminaries for his Shabos and High Holy Day khazones.

Helfgot is a master of Golden Age Khazones. The style was wildly popular among Jews in the 1920s and 30s in Europe and America. European congregations, used to vie for famous khazns to sing during the Yomim Naroyim (High Holy Days). The style is still taught in Cantorial schools, but mostly practiced in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) circles. It is semi-operatic, with distinctly Ashkenazic elements like krekhts (a catch in the voice), bends, and microtones, and both powerful and subtle dynamics. The style is, as Netsky explained, a vitally important part of Eastern European Jewish musical heritage. (In fact, many of the standard khazonish musical ornaments are recognizable to the discerning listener of klezmer music.)

Perlman had toured with Netsky and four top klezmer revival bands in the mid 1990s which produced two wonderful “In the Fiddler's House” recordings. He asked Netsky—chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory, and founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB)—work with him for his collaboration with Helfgot. This resulted in their recently released Sony CD, Eternal Echoes and the concert tour, which made a memorable stop at Symphony Hall on March 3.

The sold-out concert was a masterful blend of three musical worlds: folk, liturgical, and classical. In addition to the full KCB, and the two soloists, members of the Boston Musica Viva, conducted by Russell Ger, provided excellent accompaniment to the more classical aspects of the concert. Ger, a native of Australia, was invited by Mr. Helfgot to become music director Park Avenue East, and has his own impressive CV.

From the beginning, the atmosphere was heymish (homey). Numbers were announced from the stage, mostly introduced by Perlman with his unrelenting trademark borsht-belt humor. For instance, Perlman called Netsky—who changed positions numerous times as conductor and pianist on the KCB numbers with his back row seat as an oboist in the more orchestral segments—a “wandering Jew.”

The audience consisted of many regular Celebrity Series attendees. (The Series co-sponsored the concert with the Boston Jewish Music Festival.) Many seemed to be receptive to the klezmer numbers—spontaneously clapping to the first piece, a bulgar (klezmer dance tune). Later, more than 100 people abandoned their seats and joyfully snaked around the hall.

The reaction to Helfgot’s singing was, however, mixed. "Too piercing" said one listener, who wanted to remain anonymous. Another listener, who overheard that comment, countered with, "It goes into the Jewish heart like an arrow." Jerry (A Taste of Hanukah, A Taste of Passover, From the Top) Slavin offered, "He's fabulous—he rekindles my soul."

That's the heart of Netsky's genius. He knows that the non-haredi ear has almost never heard the classical khazones that Helfgot masters and Perlman remembers from his childhood. It is a stroke of genius to juxtapose the relatively familiar klezmer music—thanks in part to Netsky’s 35 year performance and prolific teaching resume—with the unfamiliar khazones of Helfgot.

As Naomi Tuchmann—who hired Netsky to play her son's bar mitzve 24 years ago—noted, "It's a joy to see how he's continued to introduce klezmer and cantorial to diverse audiences—that he shares his knowledge in such a joyful way … his love is infectious."

There were few disappointments in this evening. However, one was the sound. The amplification of Helfgot’s voice and that of some of the KCB soloists seemed muddy, even a little distant. One suspects this was the acoustics of the hall, since the projection of the instruments it was built for—mainly strings—was clear. Perlman’s mastery and relaxed, joyful performance was frequently breath-taking. However, even after his years of closely listening to 100 year old recordings of European klezmorim (Jewish instrumentalists), one yearns for a krekhts, and still hears much classical music-influenced choices of register and phrasing. To this reviewer’s ear, Helfgot’s singing, whether a heartfelt liturgical prayer for dew “Tal” or a shmaltzy “Yidishe Mame” was insightful and moving, but he sometimes started off-key or with a bit of hesitation.

There were a number of firsts in this concert. The performance in Symphony Hall of a classical cantor (not to mention one who is Hasidic, who dresses as his fellow Gerer Hasidim dress, whose mame-loshn is Yiddish and whose English is weak)—has probably never happened before. (Yes, one is reminded of another Hasidic man on a secular stage, Yosele Rosenblatt, (1882–1933) the most beloved cantor of all time, whose career encompassed the vaudeville stage. But that was two generations ago in New York, and the Jews in Rosenblatt's audiences knew what they were listening to.) The klezmer-classical-khazones combination is a first here. And Pete Rushefsky—incidentally, a relative of the late khazn turned opera star, Jan Peerce—may be the first master of the tsimbl (Jewish hammered dulcimer once a standard klezmer instrument) to ever have played Symphony Hall.

We're sure the late Ed Sullivan—on whose show Perlman appeared at age 13 - would agree that Boston's Perlman/Helfgot/Netsky concert was "A really big shew." The audience certainly did.

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