Few outside the world of cantorial music know the name Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, but when Itzhak Perlman listens to the Brooklyn-based cantor’s tenor, he gets goose bumps. Perlman, who has had a love of khazones, synagogue chants, since his boyhood in Tel Aviv, compares Helfgot to Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, two opera giants with whom he has also recorded.
“Helfgot just opens his mouth and gold comes out,” Perlman declared during an interview with the Forward at his home in the Hamptons, while seated in an electric scooter in his spacious living room. “I love the timbre of his voice.”
Helfgot is a Ger Hasid who performs around the globe when he’s not serving as head cantor of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue. He is widely considered to be the pre-eminent practitioner of the cantorial art alive today.
“What people get so excited about is that he’s a throwback to all the great cantors during the early 20th century,” said Russell Ger, the musical director at Park East Synagogue. “Suddenly out of nowhere, after generations of having great cantors but not with the weight and gravitas of the old guys, Helfgot emerges, and he has this voice that just stuns people.”
Perlman’s wife, Toby, who co-founded the Long Island-based Perlman Music Program with Suki Sandler to train young string musicians, first tipped off Perlman to Helfgot’s vocal abilities. She had heard her Bible class teacher rave about the cantor. When Itzhak Perlman was in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, he saw Helfgot perform with the orchestra the following evening. After the concert, the violinist made a point of going backstage to meet the cantor, and he proposed that they get together back in New York. Helfgot called it a dream come true to record with the man he considers “the high priest of music.”
Perlman brought in Hankus Netsky, leader of Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band and who worked on the violin virtuoso’s foray into klezmer music in 1995, to arrange and co-produce the “Eternal Echoes” CD, which was released September 4. Perlman, Helfgot, Netsky, members of the KCB and a 20-piece chamber orchestra recorded the album in Avatar Studios, where Bruce Springsteen recorded the album “Born To Run.”
Netsky called it the most thrilling experience he has had in a recording studio, and noted that the role Perlman played in the project was markedly different from the one he played with the klezmer bands he collaborated with in the wake of “In the Fiddler’s House,” a special that aired on the Public Broadcasting Service. Perlman and four American klezmer bands, including the KCB, the Klezmatics and Andy Statman, recorded two CDs — one in a studio and another before a live audience at Radio City Music Hall — and toured in North America and Europe. In that collaboration, Netsky says, Perlman was learning from the klezmorim. But in the project with Helfgot, Perlman ran the show.