For The Love of Pure Khazones

Cantor Yitzchak Helfgot Gives Itzhak Perlman Goosebumps

More Nigunim, Maestros: Perlman and Helfgot’s new CD honors the music Perlman loved
Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
More Nigunim, Maestros: Perlman and Helfgot’s new CD honors the music Perlman loved

By Jon Kalish

Published September 12, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
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“In this project we have a guy who grew up listening to khazones,” Netsky said. “He grew up singing this music, imitating the great cantors. He himself can sing these things.”

Helfgot says connecting with Perlman has given him a lot of kavod, honor. The 43 year-old cantor was born, like Perlman, in Israel. He moved to the United States in 2006. Helfgot knows hundreds, if not thousands, of Ger Hasidic songs and nigunim, or wordless melodies. But after the violin virtuoso listened to different versions of cantorial pieces that Helfgot proposed for the new record, the cantor deferred to Perlman’s choice of material.

Read a post on the Arty Semite blog on Watching YouTube With Itzhak Perlman.

“I’m sure any cantor working with Itzhak on a recording like this would not be trying to convince him [of what songs to include on the album], because he knows exactly what he wants,” Helfgot said. “I’m not saying I didn’t try at all. I tried to convince him to do bigger khazones, you know, like opera, but that is not what he wants here. He wants really pure, old tradition in everything: pure khazones, pure klezmer. And I think he’s right.”

Perlman selected a couple of pieces made famous by Yossele Rosenblatt, the giant of cantorial music’s golden age. The album includes “Shoyfer Shel Moshiakh” which was written by Avraham Goldfadn for the Yiddish theater and recorded by Rosenblatt, as well as “T’filas Tal,” a prayer for dew from the Passover liturgy that Rosenblatt composed and recorded.

“When I did my klezmer recordings, I was going for the same thing: an old-fashioned, Eastern European, traditional style,” Perlman explained. “A lot of the styles change; they become more contemporary. I’m not interested in that. I just love the fact that this is an old-fashioned, traditional recording from a certain era.

Sometimes you listen to crossover recordings and it’s a stretch. I’ve made several recordings that you can term ‘crossover.’ I did some jazz, I did recordings of movie tunes for violin and orchestra. But it worked. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done with the belief that it would work. I feel the cantorial material just naturally fits with the violin. It’s not a stretch.

The string section of the 20-piece chamber orchestra employed for the album includes Perlman’s former students from the Perlman Music Program. Netsky read English translations of the Hebrew lyrics aloud to the musicians so that they would have a sense of the material’s emotional intent. He thinks the orchestra members responded to Helfgot differently than they would have to a secular vocalist.

“It was not just a bunch of musicians in a room, listening and responding to the music itself. There was also the beliefs and devotion of Helfgot,” Netsky said. “When he sings these things, he’s expressing them as a Hasid, as a traditional Jew, not as a performer. And there was something about this that triggered responses from the musicians that were different.”

Perlman and Helfgot performed this material twice before recording it: once at a White House menorah-lighting ceremony and then at a benefit concert in Los Angeles. In 2013, Perlman, Helfgot, Netsky and company will perform at Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 3 and at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, on Long Island, on March 10. Other tour dates around North America are still being planned.

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer.


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