Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Many Faces to the Cantorate

“Many Faces to the Cantorate” featured three cantors - Elihahu Schleifer, Josee Wolff and Tamar Havilio – in an evening rich in variety. Aya Schleifer accompanied on the piano. The evening was a tribute to Professor E. Schleifer, cantor, teacher and musicologist, who has been director of the Cantorial Studies program at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem and will be retiring from the post at the end of the academic year.

The evening presented traditional and modern cantorial music, Yiddish songs and music of Jewish and Israeli composers, trios duets and solos.

Yerucham “Ha-Katon” Blindman (1798-1891), gifted with an outstanding tenor voice, was among the most famous 19th century European cantors. He was also a fine improviser. Cantor Schleifer’s unaccompanied performance of his “Hashkivenu” was spiritual and gripping. Another unaccompanied work in the program was Israel Alter’s (1901-1979) “Akavyo..” This was performed by Tamar Havilio; it was dramatic and soul-searching. Cantor Havilio, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made aliya to Israel in in 2003 and is a member of faculty of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College. Her reading of Moshe Ganchoff’s “Hashkivenu” (arranged by Israel Goldstein) was dramatic and emotional, with its many changes of tonality.

French composer and pianist, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), composed his “Deux Melodies Hebraiques” in 1914. They were commissioned by singer Alvina Alvi and first performed by her, with Ravel at the piano. The first song, “Kaddish”, is an arrangement of the traditional New Year melody and the second, “The Eternal Qustion”, is based on traditional Yiddish verse from Eastern Europe. We were privileged to hear them performed by Cantor Josee Wolff. Born in the Netherlands, Wolff performs widely and is on the faculty of Hebrew Union College in New York. Her performance of the Ravel pieces was powerful and profound, poignant and wistful. Wolff also sang Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) “A Simple Song”: her palette of sounds and emotions, vocal ease and dynamics never fail to involve the audience.

Born in the Ukraine, Jacob Weinberg (1879-1956) belongs to the pioneering school of composers who, together with Jewish performers, folklorists and other Russian intellectuals, attempted to found a new Jewish national art music in the first two decades of the 20th century based on authentic Jewish musical heritage. He lived in Palestine from 1921 to 1925, settling in America after that. “Yah Adir”, sung by Cantor Schleifer, is an optimistic song of the “chalutzim” (pioneers) and its harmonies and atmosphere reflect the musical style developing in Israeli music. The piano accompaniment is interesting and independent of the vocal line. Aya Schleifer’s accompaniments are sensitive, shaped and polished. Her playing added much to the evening’s artistic aspect.. In addition to performing, Mrs. Schleifer is a senior staff member of the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Also in the category of Israeli music, Cantor Havilio sang Naomi Shemer’s arrangement of the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain, my Captain”. Shemer (1931-2004), known as the “first lady of Israeli song”, wrote the piece in 1995 after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The song expresses grief and a sense of hopelessness that pervaded at the time. Anastasia and Dennis Sobolev accompanied Havilio on piano and guitar in an effective and heart-rending performance.

Songs in Yiddish, with their humor and warmth, were certainly an appealing feature of the program. Born in Bukovina, Leibu Levin (1914-1983) was an artist of the Yiddish word. Known as the last of the Yiddish troubadors, he set texts of the most important Yiddish poets to music. Schleifer gave a touching performance of his touching strophic song about a lullaby “My Sacred Cameo”. Havilio’s theatre background is always apparent in songs of the Yiddish genre: she sang and acted American-born Abraham Ellstein’s “Mazl”, an appealing and sentimental song telling of a seventeen-year-old girl looking for a groom.

This was a meaningful and attractive concert, presenting fine artists and much variety. Monica Fallon’s program notes were a source of information and interest.

“Many Faces to the Cantorate”
The Hebrew Union College Concerts
Cantors Elihahu Schleifer, Josee Wolff and Tamar Havilio
Aya Schleifer-piano
Hebrew Union College, 13 King David St.
February 7, 2008

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