Eclectic liturgy

A novel concert at the Jerusalem Performing Arts Festival offers more than the usual cantorial music, but still includes some old favorites.

Ramatayim Men's Choir 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ramatayim Men's Choir 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Promoting a program of numbers originally performed and/or written by as eclectic a bunch as Verdi, Sarit Hadad and iconic cantor Yossele Rosenblatt might seem like a marketing executive’s worst nightmare, but Simon Cohen says his audiences lap it up.
The 39-year-old British-born Cohen is one of three cantors who will perform at the Gerard Behar Auditorium on March 31 (8 p.m.), along with Shai Abramson and Shlomo Glick, in The Stars of the New Generation of Chazanim concert in aid of the OneFamily Fund, which supports victims of terror.
The show, which is being held as part of this year’s Jerusalem Performing Arts Festival, also features the Zimrata Cantors’ Choir directed by Dr. Uri Aharon, the OneFamily Bereaved Fathers’ Choir directed by Yotam Segal and the Ramatayim Men’s Choir conducted by Richard Shavei Zion. Piano accompaniment will be provided by Raymond Goldstein.
“The people who will come to the concert are mostly from an Anglo-Saxon background who are knowledgeable about music and like classical music,” notes Cohen.
“People who have attended my concerts say I have uplifted them, and I find that very gratifying. I believe that if you sing from the heart, you will touch people’s hearts. That is what it’s all about.”
The participants in Thursday’s concert will perform in various combinations – all three cantors together, with one or more of the choirs, cantorial duets and solo spots. In keeping with the all-embracing approach to the event, Cohen’s solos also feature a wide range of material. “I will do ‘Sefirat Ha’omer’ by [Shmuel] Alman,” Cohen explains. “That is a big choral piece with wonderful lines and amazing harmonies. I’ll also do ‘Sim Shalom’ by Meir Finkelstein. That’s a happy, clappy sort of singalong, with some hazanut in the middle. Then there’s ‘Ba’avor David’ by [Roitman] Romshinsky, which is another classical cantorial song.” There will be some extramural entertainment on offer, too. “I’ll do ‘Torna a Surriento,’ a Neapolitan number that everyone knows. It’s got lots of fireworks,” he says.
Cohen returns to the sincerity theme, regardless of the material.
“Your vocal performance has to reflect what is going on inside, in your soul. You need to have that sensitivity. You have to be able to touch people’s hearts. A man whose mother was on her deathbed told me I had opened the heavens for him. That is worth more than anything else I could possibly get from my singing.”
Although Cohen brings impressive genetics to the job, it took him a while to apply his talents to the cantorial discipline. “I played classical piano as a kid and I sang in choirs, but I never considered becoming a cantor,” recalls Cohen, whose professional lineage goes back to his great-grandfather. In fact, his decision to get serious about his singing followed a chance remark one Shabbat. “I was a guest at someone’s house and we were singing at the meal, and he said me, “You’ve really got a voice you should do something with – become a cantor.’ I felt good about the compliment but I didn’t take what he said too seriously.”
Some time later Cohen started taking lessons with acclaimed cantor Naftali Hershtik at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute and with conductor-teacher Dr. Mordechai Sobol. “Dr. Sobol taught me the importance of the spiritual side of being a cantor and really feeling what you sing,” recalls Cohen. “Now he has me in his Yuval Series [with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra].
Naftali got me going very quickly. Within two weeks he had me on the stage at the Tower of David, which I found very nerveracking.”
The response was favorable. “As I played piano, I could read music, which helped me learn the repertoire quickly. I became inundated with bookings and have performed in New York, Miami, Budapest and England.”
Cohen has a regular High Holy Days berth at the Mill Hill Synagogue in London and is enthused by his periodic work in Turkey. “I get bookings from the Ashkenazi community in Istanbul. The Jews there are scared by the situation in Turkey and are very happy to have me come over to sing for them. I see my work there as a type of mission. It’s an important connection.”
Cohen also earns a nice crust from a surprising line of work.
“It’s becoming a very in thing to have a cantor sing at weddings of rich secular Israelis,” he explains. “Secular weddings are very often about just having disco music. I sing at huppot ceremonies, and people really appreciate and enjoy it. The older secular Jews are reminded of Friday afternoons at home with their religious parents listening to cantorial music on the radio. There’s nothing spiritual about secular weddings, and more and more people want something spiritual without it being overly religious and without anyone telling them what to do and what not to do.”
Cohen says he never loses sight of the essence. “Dr. Sobol taught me that it’s very important that you sound like a cantor.
He says you should sing for the man in the back row who saved up for three weeks to buy a ticket. He says he wants that man’s belly button to tremble.”
Doubtless there will be some quivering navels at Gerard Behar on Thursday.

For more information about The Stars of the New Generation of Chazanim concert: