Who knew the man behind the Brooklyn homecomings of Jay-Z and Barbra Streisand had a thing for heimishe melodies?
Bruce Ratner, the developer and majority owner of the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, which opened last September with a Jay-Z show and hosted borough native Barbra Streisand a month later, holds a special place in his heart for cantorial music.
“My parents are both from Eastern European descent, so that type of Jewish music is in my blood,” Ratner said. “I grew up going to my Conservative synagogue in Cleveland, where they had an amazing cantor who I absolutely loved to listen to. And as I got older, I was always buying cantor CDs. The music is just so refined.”
Ratner, the chairman and chief executive of the real estate development firm Forest City Companies, is taking personal pride in having spearheaded efforts to put on the first Jewish event at the venue: a February 28 concert featuring the renowned Israeli-born violinist Itzhak Perlman sharing the stage with Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. The Barclays performance comes on the heels of the pair’s recent collaboration, “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul,” an album of Jewish music released in August.
At Itzhak Perlman’s home on the East End of Long Island, the great violinist wakes up his MacBook to play back some khazones through a huge flat screen TV on the wall. As he flips through his iTunes collection and some YouTube videos, he recalls listening to such cantorial greats as Gershon Serota, Moshe Kousevittsky, Yossele Rosenblatt and an Israeli khazan named Leibele Glantz, who davened at the shul where Perlman had his bar mitzvah.
Growing up in Tel Aviv in the mid-1950’s. Perlman started listening to cantorial music on the radio. He was about 10 years old at the time.
“I remember the khazones hour was on shabbos,” he tells me. “The only entertainment we had in the house was the radio. There was no television, so the radio was on all the time. That’s how I got to hear my first recordings of classical music and cantorial music and later on, rock ‘n roll.”
Photo by Mark Berney
Itzhak spoke to Yitzchok in Hebrew. Hankus spoke to Yitzchok in Yiddish. The conductor made puns in English with a heavy Australian-South African accent. And this all happened in the recording studio where Bruce Springsteen recorded “Born to Run” and Madonna laid down her vocal tracks for “Like A Virgin.”
We’re talking, of course, about Itzhak Perlman, Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot, Hankus Netsky of Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB) and conductor Russell Ger, who is Helfgot’s musical director at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue. Last week they were joined by a 20-piece chamber orchestra composed primarily of the violin virtuoso’s former students and several members of KCB to record a new album of cantorial and Yiddish music at Avatar Studios in midtown Manhattan.
It’s the Itzhak and Yitzchok show! Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman is teaming up with cantorial superstar Yitzchok Meir Helfgot for a concert tour and recording project titled “The Soul of Jewish Music.” The inaugural concert takes place March 30 at the Saban Theatre in Los Angeles and will benefit Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network.
The collaboration is Perlman’s first foray into Jewish music since “In the Fiddler’s House,” his klezmer tour and recordings in the mid-1990s. In a press release from L.A.-based producer Dan Adler, Perlman gushes that teaming up with Helfgot is an “historic project” and declares, “It excites me to my kishkas!”
“The Klezmatics are the Jewish equivalent of arena rock,” ethnomusicologist Bob Cohen deadpans early in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” “They’re not heavy metal; they’re heavy Yiddish.”
It’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek analysis calculated to make us chuckle (picture these mild-mannered, middle-aged folks head-banging in eyeliner and platform heels!) — and yet there’s truth in Cohen’s quip. The Klezmatics are, in a certain sense, a big-time group, having achieved a level of name recognition that’s rare in world music circles, and — it would seem to go without saying — rarer still for contemporary groups who sing in Yiddish. From an ethnomusicologist’s perspective, they’re interesting because they don’t just mimic old recordings: Here is something that at least approximates a living tradition — new tunes are composed, old tunes combined with jazz and gospel elements, Yiddish lyrics written about workers’ rights and gay pride. The group has been together for 20 years, released nine albums, collaborated with Itzhak Perlman and Nora Guthrie, and won a Grammy Award. And now, another milestone: The Klezmatics are famous enough that someone thought to make a documentary about them.
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