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Jewish Musical Tradition Echoes Through Ages


Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman compares Jewish cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot to some of the giants of opera. Helfgot is the chief cantor at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue. He has sung at the Metropolitan Opera. Now, he and Perlman have recorded an album together that goes back to a time when cantors were opera stars. Jon Kalish reports.


JON KALISH, BYLINE: Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot are in a Manhattan recording studio with a klezmer ensemble from Boston and a 20-piece chamber orchestra.

ENSEMBLE: (Singing)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sounds great.

KALISH: Bruce Springsteen and Madonna have recorded hits here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sounds fine.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We are rolling. Take one.


ITZHAK PERLMAN: He's got a major voice. All right - let's put it that way - super major voice. He has got an operatic voice which happens to sing cantorial music.

HELFGOT: (Singing)

KALISH: Itzhak Perlman says Helfgot's tenor compares to the voices of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, two opera giants with whom the violinist has also recorded.

PERLMAN: Whenever I teach and whenever a lot of people teach instruments, they always refer to singing and breathing. Think about the way you play in a vocal way. That's why I find that collaborating with a singer was very, very natural. The cantorial material for the violin I feel just naturally fits. It's not a stretch.

KALISH: It's also not a stretch historically. Some of the greatest 20th century cantors made the transition from the synagogue to the opera stage. Hankus Netsky is the leader of Boston's Klezmer Conservatory Band. Itzhak Perlman tapped him to arrange and co-produce the new CD. Netsky described the repertoire as material that everyone in his grandfather's generation knew.

HANKUS NETSKY: This music, done in this way, this hasn't really happened for a very, very long time.

HELFGOT: (Singing)

When I was a child, everybody was listening only to this kind of music.

KALISH: And young Yitzchak Meir Helfgot was trying to sing it as well.

HELFGOT: I was trying to imitate them and sometimes I succeeded. And my father used to say, oh, don't cry too high.

KALISH: As much as he loves this music, the cantor says he tried to convince Perlman to record some more operatic cantorial songs.

HELFGOT: But that is not what he wants. He wants really pure, old tradition in everything: khazones, klezmer, pure. And I think he's right.


KALISH: Co-producer Hankus Netsky says the music certainly had an effect on those in the studio.

NETSKY: It was not just a bunch of musicians in a room listening and responding just to the music itself, but there was also the beliefs and devotion of Helfgot. And there was something about that that triggered responses from the musicians that were different.

HELFGOT: (Singing)

KALISH: The 13-piece string section was made up of Perlman's former students.

MICHELLE ROSS: In a way, it felt like Take Your Kid to Work Day, you know, because we saw Mr. Perlman in a totally different scene, and it was a real blast.

KALISH: Violinist Michelle Ross graduated from Julliard this spring. She says the experience of recording with the cantor was also very different.

ROSS: We are a classically trained orchestra with a conductor and with music written out, and yet here's this man with this voice. And, if my memory is correct, I'm pretty sure he was just standing by his microphone and not having this music in front of him, and just this music is like breathing to him. You know, that's what was so amazing.

HELFGOT: (Singing)

KALISH: The songs on the new CD are both sacred and secular, derived from Jewish liturgy, but also from Hasidic folk songs and klezmer melodies. Itzhak Perlman believes the album will appeal to more than just Jewish listeners.

PERLMAN: This record has great music in it, you know. And the people who don't know this kind of music, they will listen to what it sounds like. And if you keep listening to it over and over again, you will just learn to fall in love with it.

KALISH: The way Itzhak Perlman, Cantor Helfgot and their fellow musicians have. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Kalish
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